What The Constitution Means To Me is Now On Amazon Prime... Here Is What It Means To Me
On October 16th, What The Constitution Means To Me made its debut on Amazon Prime Video.
This original play written by, and starring Heidi Schreck opened on Broadway at The Helen Hayes Theatre on March 31st, 2019 for a limited run. What The Constitution Means To Me was directed by Olivia Butler and featured Mike Iveson and high school debaters Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams opposite Schreck. The show was incredibly successful, winning The Tony Award for Best Play, as well as being a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Due to its popularity, the play extended its run twice, finally closing on August 24th, 2019.
This recording of the show was filmed during the final week of Broadway performances and was directed by Marielle Heller. Heidi Schreck has also announced that a position of her proceeds from this release will be donated to the Broadway Cares COVID Relief Fund and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Voting Rights 2020 initiative.
What The Constitution Means To Me is based on Schreck’s own experiences as a Constitutional debater, and throughout the show she alternates between her fifteen year old self and present day. Throughout the show, she discusses this founding document, specifically the 9th and 14th amendment, and reflects on how the Constitution has affected generations of women, using examples from her own family. Schreck presents the idea that the Constitution does not protect all Americans, and engages in a debate with a local high school debater before turning the question to the audience:
Should the U.S. Constitution be abolished?
Before I dig any deeper into this incredible piece of work, I need to add a brief disclaimer. I am Canadian, and have very little knowledge of the United States Constitution.
I desperately wanted to see this show when I was in New York City in August 2019, but ended up choosing not to go because I wasn’t sure if I would understand the content. Now, I can tell any of you who feel the same way that it’s not a problem! Heidi Scheck explains the amendments which she discusses in layman's terms, as well as providing historical context for the examples she uses. While the show does focus on the U.S. Constitution, and uses events and statistics from the United States, discussion topics such as systemic racism, white supremacy, and violence against women are relevant no matter where you are in the world.
For those of you who, like me, are not familiar with the Constitution, here are Amendments 9 and 14, as they are discussed in detail within the show:
“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
1. “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
(This section of this amendment has FOUR different clauses attached to it, which you can find more about here:https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/the-constitution/ )
What The Constitution Means To Me is incredibly well filmed. While many filmed versions of live shows focus on a combination of wide and close up shots, I loved how director, Marielle Heller, showcases both the backstage moments and the audience reaction. These are beautiful moments signature to live theatre, and it was an opportunity to connect with both actors and theatregoers alike. Filmwise, another element I loved was the choice to showcase Thursday Williams, the other high school debater, in the end credits. Since the two young women alternated shows, it was a gracious way to feature them both.
Heidi Schreck is incredibly likeable, creating an open, honest dialogue with the audience. While the play is brilliantly constructed, a discussion as intricate as the titular document itself, Schreck’s performance is so authentic and fresh that it almost feels like having coffee with a friend. She brings the entire audience directly to her, winning them over by giving all of herself to the people she is speaking to. It’s a delicate balance bringing warmth and humour to a serious discussion on difficult topics, and she does it brilliantly.
Schreck’s name has become synonymous with What The Constitution Means To Me, and she has created a brilliant legacy by speaking her truth and sharing her own stories.
One of the best things about Schreck’s production is the transparency. At the beginning of the show, she reenacts the contest she participated in at fifteen years old, and starts it by announcing, “Here I am, at fifteen.” No costume change or pretense, just an open statement. I was instantly obsessed.
She captures the positivity and innocence of fifteen, gleefully addressing the ‘crucible’ of the Constitution, introducing it as a brilliant, living, breathing thing. The main piece of the document she praises is Amendment 9, known as the “Penumbra”. And she is right as she discusses the beauty of this, which encompasses the entire show,
“Who we are now might not be who we will become.”
It speaks to the Constitution as a document structured to grow with the country and its people, recognizing its own faults, and promising to be better.
As she reflects on the contest she competed in so frequently, she mentions how one key aspect of the competition was to relate the document directly into her personal life. It’s something she openly admits struggling with at fifteen, and something she still feels the need to protect her teenage self from now. And so, she makes the bold choice to abandon the living memory of herself at fifteen, choosing to complete the show as her adult self
This change shifts the entire show, and occurs when she begins to thoroughly address the first section of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and its clauses. The entire play transforms during this major shift, providing transparency and the opportunity for a direct address and conversation.
When she reaches the Fourth Clause of the First Section of the Fourteenth Amendment, she is overcome. Bravely, she shares stories of four generations of women within her family, and draws a connection between these stories and the Constitution. Before I continue to discuss the show, I must pause again to acknowledge and admire the sheer strength of Heidi Schreck, to speak onstage deeply, truthfully, and emotionally, every night, multiple times a week.
Schreck speaks boldly as she addresses violence against women, describing “epidemic-like” levels of violence, and giving both personal and external examples of how the Constitution often fails to protect citizens in these cases. A strong choice she makes as she speaks is to use index cards when she uses examples of more difficult scenarios. Some may feel this disconnects from the audience, but I found that it brought us all collectively closer. These things are difficult to talk about, but we need to talk about them anyways. This demonstrates the reality of the commitment we all need to make to create tangible change.
One of my favourite things Schreck does during this time, is to acknowledge and address her own privilege as a white woman, recognizing that when it comes to violence against women, the risk of violence is much higher for Women of Colour, Trans Women, and especially Trans Women of Colour.
“What does this Constitution mean if it cannot protect us from the violence of men?” Schreck asks the audience. This is when she poses a new theory to replace her “Crucible Theory”: that the Constitution should be obligated to protect all people.
After this emotional turn, Schreck brings the audience back to the world of high school debate, posing the question:
Should we abolish the U.S. Constitution?
Enter Rosdely Cirpran, a high school debater and a force of nature, who takes a position opposite Schreck for a live debate.
This segment encourages audience participation, and after the two sides present their arguments, a sole audience member is chosen to choose the winner.
During these live debates, a tally was kept of audience responses to the final question. Out of 183 audiences, there were 3 ties, 57 votes to abolish, and 123 to keep.
The show finishes on a hopeful note, despite the heaviness of certain topics. Sitting side by side on the foot of the stage, they ask each other a few light questions, with Heidi asking the young woman:
“What do you imagine your life will be like in 20 years?”
Don’t we all imagine a better, safer, more inclusive world in the coming years?
And through brilliant work like Schreck’s, and following her example to have these difficult conversations, we can slowly and steadily create change.
If you watch theatre for escapism, this may not be the show for you. However, I would call What The Constitution Means To Me required viewing. It’s the kind of theatre we need as it does what theatre is meant to do; it reflects on the current world and inspires change and reflection. This play is not just revolutionary in its subject matter, but how it serves as a call to arms, and the huge response it has received, a large part of that being from younger audience members. This show is hardly about the titular document, and while the final question focuses on its abolition, it’s much deeper and recognizes the need for change at a systemic level.
As for what this play means to me, I am ready to buy this play, devour it, and wait for Heidi Schreck to publish a memoir.
I’m a chatterbox by nature, and seeing a piece of theatre that moves me beyond words, to a place where it can take days to process the lasting effect of the piece, is no small feat. Even sitting down to write this piece took time, because how can you find words to describe a play which is so honest, and so brave, as it speaks on subjects that affect you directly? Violence against women and a woman’s “right to choose” (having control over her own body) are universal topics which are not exclusive to the U.S. Constitution. Schreck speaks brilliantly on these topics, showing great composure and strength as she discusses the effect they have had on her own life, then tying them back into the Constitution. I was continuously amazed by her resilience.
I truly regret not going to see this incredible piece of theatre, but I am so glad to have had the opportunity to tune in from home.
(Where I knew I could Google anything I needed to.)
Though now on hold due to COVID-19, What The Constitution Means To Me is touring the United States starring Cassie Beck and featuring local high school debaters from each stop along the way. Hopefully, it will be up and running again as soon as it is safe to do so.
However, you can still witness this incredible work from home on Amazon Prime.
If you aren’t already a member, it is worth the ten dollars!
(Or let this be what you get a free trial for.)
You won’t be disappointed.
For those of you who have watched the show, I welcome you to share your thoughts with us in the comment section below!