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In ‘What the Constitution Means to Me,’ Heidi Schreck Reminds Us What’s At Stake
2020 has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year for American women—then again, what year hasn’t been? Just ask Heidi Shreck, the powerhouse writer and performer behind What the Constitution Means to Me, one of the most startling evocations of what it means to be an American woman in recent memory. In Schreck’s intensely personal one-woman show, which recounts her years as a teenage competitor in American Legion debates about the Constitution, Schreck traces how the Constitution has failed four generations of women in her family, dissecting whose rights our foundational document enshrines—and whose it doesn’t. After a popular but limited run on Broadway in 2019, a taping of What the Constitution Means to Me has landed on Amazon Prime, where viewers can enjoy the Tony-nominated production from the comfort of their homes. Seventeen days out from a historically consequential election, What the Constitution Means to Me is a must-watch—at once a rousing call to arms on behalf of women and a necessary act of civic discourse.
Let’s recap: in this historic year, which marks the centennial of white American women winning the right to vote, women have been disproportionately clobbered by the coronavirus pandemic, exiting the workforce at alarming rates and enduring record levels of domestic violence, while women of color in particular have suffered disastrous cascading consequences of the pandemic. Meanwhile, after the death of the 87-year-old woman single-handedly standing between American women and the obliteration of reproductive freedom, we’re forced to entertain the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative judge looking to put the final nail in the coffin of our civil liberties. Elsewhere, at ghoulish ICE detention centers, detainees are suffering forced hysterectomies—not that you’d know it, given how quickly the appalling news melted away like sandy footprints in high tide. Last but certainly not least, lest you forgot, new allegations of sexual misconduct against the president have continued to surface, bringing the total number of claimants to twenty-six women.
The rage and dread you feel reading this wall of horrors is the way it feels to experience What the Constitution Means to Me. Though the play begins with Schrek portraying her sunny, fifteen-year-old self, delivering her prize-winning speech about how the Constitution is like a witch’s cauldron, Schreck soon sheds that persona to enumerate the myriad horrors of womanhood. She rattles off gutting statistics like the fact that, in the twenty-first century alone, more American women have been killed by their male partners than have died in war. To be walloped by Schreck’s dismal litany of facts is to be astonished, enraged, overwhelmed. Schreck knows this; she describes the unbearable weight of living with these statistics, and how impossible it can feel to soldier through the day when your safety and autonomy are constantly embattled.
Our bodies had been left out of this document from the beginning.
Schreck’s narrative of her family begins with her great great grandmother, a mail-order bride who died at age thirty-six of “melancholia.” As she traces through the generations, she describes her grandmother’s second marriage to an abusive man, who beat and raped his wife and children. Returning to the present, she describes her own abortion, as well as the fear all women live with that the men we love will become our abusers. Through her family and personal histories, Schreck illuminates how very imperiled American women are, and how our vaunted Constitution will not save us.
“What does it mean if this Constitution will not protect us from the violence of men?” Schreck asks, considering not just her own family history, but the dismal verdict in Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzalez, a 2005 Supreme Court case which ruled that police could not be sued for failing to protect three young girls from their violent father, who murdered them. With close attention to the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, Schreck explores the long list of who the Constitution, created by and for white landowners, leaves out, saying, “Our bodies had been left out of this document from the beginning.”
Schreck launched the off-Broadway production of What The Constitution Means to Me during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, as Christine Blasey Ford tried in vain to stop her assailant from being appointed to the highest court in the land. This week, the taped Broadway production lands on Amazon Prime as Judge Amy Coney Barrett appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee, providing mealy-mouthed non-answers to questions about her plans to erode American civil liberties. Late in the play, an audio recording of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is beamed in from the rafters, with the late justice saying, to rapturous applause, “When will there be enough women on the court? When there are nine.” Rarely has a play been so miraculously timed as this one, yet the timing goes beyond mere happenstance. It reminds us of what’s at stake in this looming election, and of how we’ve spent 230 years “negotiating for our basic human rights,” as Schreck puts it—with no end in sight. The play is also, if you can believe it, a lot of fun.
Case in point: In the final movement of the play, Schreck is joined onstage by Rosdely Ciprian, a New York high school student and passionate parliamentary debater who has debated Schreck on stage for two years. Speaking about how inspired she feels by America’s young people, Schreck says, beaming, “Sometimes I feel like you’re shining light backwards into the darkness so I can follow you into the future.”
In fifteen rousing minutes, Schreck and Ciprian debate whether or not the Constitution should be abolished, with the audience positioned as a jury, and one audience member selected to deliver a verdict. Their barnburner debate is a reminder of our civic responsibility, and our moral imperative not just to choose names on a ballot, but to ask radical questions of our government—the one we have now, and the one we want to have in a better, brighter future. Is the Constitution worth saving? Who can we trust to execute the letter of the law? How can we make our voices heard? Let your vote be your voice, but don’t stop there. Whether you’re debating on a Broadway stage or around the Thanksgiving table, unless we have these conversations about our highest ideals, this living document will never change or die—but hundreds of thousands of women will.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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