It’s hard to describe what exactly What the Constitution Means to Me is. It’s an autobiographic play, written and starring by Heidi Schreck, in which she recounts and (sort of) recreates her time as a teenager participating in American Legion constitution speaking contests. It’s a scripted play, though it feels conversational (she breaks the fourth wall constantly, including at one point to tell the audience that the show does have structure). It’s a narrative, or more accurately a few interwoven narratives, but also a philosophical look at what the constitution is and how it actually functions in today’s world.
I knew basically this much about the show before I went in. (I had read this, lovely, piece in The New Yorker.) And I expected it to be an interesting intellectual afternoon of theater, which it was. But, it was also, unexpectedly emotional. Schreck follows the original mandate of the American Legion contest, better than she reports she did at fifteen, and connects the dry, legalistic language of the Fourteenth and Ninth Amendments to the darkest parts of her family’s story. The mock debate becomes a way to talk about the way the Constitution (and the governments built upon it) have failed pretty much every category of people other than the kind of rich, white men who wrote it.
But it didn’t leave me as hopeless as that last paragraph implies, mostly because Schreck calls in reinforcements in the form of a teenage girl who, like her former self, now fills her time with debates. Yesterday, we saw Thursday Williams come out to argue in favor of the constitution, not in a Pollyanna way. I left with a lot more questions than answers (my family had a very interesting dinner conversation, but not despair, which these days can be hard for me to avoid politically.
The show is running at the Helen Hayes Theater at 240 W. 44th St.