Seeing yourself in the Preamble

McCarter Theatre Center presents Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me

In
5 minute read
Actor Cassie Beck, a white woman, wears a yellow blazer and holds a pocket-sized US Constitution, in front of a US flag
A treatise that resonates with almost everyone: Cassie Beck in the national tour of ‘What the Constitution Means to Me.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

In the mid-1980s, Heidi Schreck paid for her college education by giving speeches about the United States Constitution. Already besotted with theater, she compared the document to a crucible—a series of disparate ideas and clauses that form something extraordinary through alchemic fusion. Now a playwright and actor, she distills her adolescent experience into What the Constitution Means to Me, a deeply personal reflection on the ideals and flaws upon which the American Experiment is built.

A fusion of monologue, performance art, and debate, Schreck’s work has become an unlikely theatrical phenomenon. Developed through the experimental collective Clubbed Thumb, it eventually traveled to Broadway and was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. A filmed version of the play, in which Schreck enacts a heightened version of herself at the center of the show, is available to stream through Amazon Prime. It is now crossing the country on a national tour, with its current engagement at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center running through December 12, 2021.

The law is personal

It’s easy to see why this treatise has resonated with so many audiences. For all the paeans to the supposed impartiality of justice, every human being understands that our connection to the law is deeply personal and constantly shifting. So, too, are the interpretations that decree how far a certain right extends, or where it ends altogether. Schreck describes the Constitution as a “living document,” and we’re constantly reminded of that fact—for better or worse.

The law lives and dies by the self-interest of those who interpret it. Schreck, who is played in this leg of the tour by Cassie Beck, notes that when the US Supreme Court essentially legalized the sale of birth control in 1965, at least four of the all-male Justices were engaging in extramarital affairs with younger women. Clearly they had a vested interest in curbing unwanted pregnancies. She also points out that Antonin Scalia, despite professing a devout Catholic faith, ruled that police have no duty to protect the sanctity of human life in a case involving three young women who were killed by their father, despite a restraining order.

The topic of abortion fits almost uncomfortably well in Schreck’s interpretation of the Constitution’s strengths and limitations—and coming on the heels of a Supreme Court case that seems likely to gut Roe v. Wade, her observations take on a deeper resonance. Schreck was born in 1972, the year before abortion rights were codified in Roe. While on the debating circuit in high school, contemporary Schreck tells us, she pandered to the mostly male judges by claiming that while she supported the freedom of choice, she herself would never choose abortion. But then she faced the reality of an unexpected pregnancy at age 21.

Today’s rights

Schreck expertly shows how the Constitution permeates everyday life in mundane and overarching ways, and how the rights we take for granted today may be lost to a future generation—just as the rights we hold now would have been unthinkable to some of our ancestors. At one point, Schreck asks the white male property owners of the audience to raise their hands; she reinforces that, under the original framing, these were the only people guaranteed protection under the law.

Those whose voices were initially silenced by our country’s foundational document include Schreck’s great-great-grandmother, a mail-order bride from Germany who died of “melancholia” after birthing 16 children. They also include her beloved Grandma Bea, who endured an abusive marriage and the effects of Battered Woman Syndrome, until Schreck’s mother and aunt courageously had their stepfather arrested and briefly jailed. Although Schreck mentions that her step-grandfather served only two years of a 30-year sentence, she highlights the rarity of a domestic abuser spending even a day in jail.

Actor Jocelyn Shek, an Asian American teenager wearing a pink shirt, and actor Cassie Beck, stand on stage together.
Debating the Constitution itself: Jocelyn Shek and Cassie Beck in the national tour of ‘What the Constitution Means to Me.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

The biggest question of all

What the Constitution Means to Me is a masterful consideration of how lived experience enhances and expands our perspective, and why it’s sometimes necessary to kill your darlings. The structure is messy and discursive, with deliberately blurred lines between Schreck the real person, Schreck the character, and Beck the actor.

Beck has the unenviable task of stepping into her predecessor’s big shoes, and she occasionally gooses up the broad comedy that Schreck employs early on to disarm the audience. Yet her performance grows deeply moving in its quieter moments, and when Beck drops the artifice and plays herself near the evening’s end, she’s extraordinary.

Mike Iveson follows a similar trajectory, appearing first as a gruff legionnaire who moderates Schreck's competitions before delivering a touching soliloquy on discovering his queer identity. He offers a warm and complementary presence throughout.

The work ends with a debate that faces Beck against Jocelyn Shek, a 16-year-old high-school debater from California. (Shek alternates performances with Emilyn Toffler.) They take on the question of whether the Constitution should be abolished and rewritten. I admit I found this section slightly forced—the repartee between Beck and Shek feels too rehearsed, and the arguments seem stacked in one direction. At the end, a random audience member is chosen to represent the entire crowd by proxy and choose a winning position. I won’t reveal which outcome was selected, but I wasn’t surprised.

Where we all belong

Still, Constitution is an exhilarating and necessary play, with levels of significance that will only continue to shift and grow. Oliver Butler recreates his precise direction for the tour, and Rachel Hauck’s initially unassuming VFW Hall set takes on a slightly sinister air as the performance progresses, as rows and rows of male eyes bear down on Schreck as she makes her case.

When it comes to the Constitution, Schreck hones in on the Ninth Amendment, which suggests that rights not specifically guaranteed by the document are nonetheless still in effect. She returns often to the word “penumbra,” which is employed in a legal context in reference to privacy rights not otherwise directly stated. As a person whose own rights were not initially guaranteed by the framers, she comes to the conclusion that “we all belong in the Preamble.” I left the performance with a quiet sadness that many in power, including some who sit on our highest court, would not necessarily agree.

Know before you go: What the Constitution Means to Me addresses topics that might be difficult or disturbing for some, including intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and structural/systemic racism.

What, When, Where

What the Constitution Means to Me. By Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler. $25-$85. Through December 12, 2021, at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, New Jersey. (609) 258-2787 or mccarter.org. For information on future tour stops, visit constitutionbroadway.com.

McCarter Theatre Center requires all eligible visitors to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Masks are required at all times. Touchless ticket scanning and digital programs are available. Seating is not distanced.

Accessibility

McCarter Theatre Center is a barrier-free campus, with wheelchair and other accessible seating available for purchase in advance. Free accessible parking is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

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