October 6, 2018

"What the Constitution Means to Me" Stands Up for Democracy, But Stumbles as Theater

They say that timing is everything. And the timing could hardly be better for Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, which opened at New York Theatre Workshop last weekend, just three days after Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, which, of course, has the ultimate job of determining the meaning of this nation's constitution.

Schreck reportedly began working on this performance piece about 10 years ago (click here to read more about the show’s derivation) but she’s been thinking about the constitution for much longer than that. As her piece details, she earned the money to pay for college by participating in speech competitions on the meaning of the country’s founding document sponsored by American Legion chapters around the country. 

Accordingly, set designer Rachel Hauck has created a replica of an old-fashioned Legion hall, complete with scores of photos of old white men looking down from the walls. It’s an apt metaphor because while What the Constitution Means to Me includes segments of Schreck’s old scholarship-winning speeches, it devotes far more time to her present-day musings on whose privileges the constitution has always protected (white property-owning men) and whose rights it only later covered (people of color and women who were once regarded as the property of those white men and, more recently, gay people). 

This is important stuff and Schreck is an amiable guide but there’s an amorphous quality to this show that struck me as making it less like a theatrical piece and more like a TED Talk, albeit an engaging one.

Schreck pretty much keeps to the script she’s written but with the apparent blessing of director Oliver Butler (click here to read more about him) she regularly strays into asides that add to the official 90-minute running time but don't add much to the message she’s trying to get across.

There are some attempts to inject a little drama. Schreck movingly recounts the experiences of the women in her family, including a great grandmother who died in a mental institution and her maternal grandmother who was regularly beaten by her husband. But their connection to the constitution seems strained.

Toward the end, Schreck brings out one of two high-school debaters and faces off against them on the question of whether the constitution should be replaced with a more contemporary expression of the country’s values. It was inspiring to see Thursday Williams, a senior at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, deliver a passionate defense of the constitution at the performance I attended but it was a little gimmicky too.

I saw the show the day after the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings and even before the lights dimmed, the audience was buzzing as people hashed over Ford’s earnest recollection about how he had assaulted her when they were teenagers and Kvanaugh’s furious denial.

It was a downtown theater crowd in New York City, where 79% of the electorate voted for Hillary Clinton so you can imagine on which side they came down—and how they feel about the hearing's final outcome.

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