Does the American Constitution protect and serve or is it so outdated, so specifically tailored by the founding fathers to white, male, landowners (no kidding), that a Convention should be considered in order to start from scratch?
Though on one hand, progress can certainly be cited, are you aware The Equal Rights Amendment has not, in fact, passed? The venerable document that’s supposed to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex has no legal force in our supposed United States. Nor are we the people legally protected against prejudice of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, age, or immigration status. Despite constitutional declarations, all of this is applicable only on a state to state basis and then often dismissed by courts.
Do you know that the Fourteenth Amendment assures the right of every person born on U.S. soil to become a citizen, except Native Americans? “It leaves it up to the whims of lawmakers to decide who they think is a “good” immigrant or a “bad” immigrant.” ‘Tip of the iceberg.
“When I was 15 years old, I traveled the country giving speeches about the Constitution at American Legion halls for prize money. This was a scheme invented by my mom, a debate coach, to help me pay for college… A few years ago, I was thinking about the Constitution (beat) — for various reasons — and I started to wonder what exactly it was that my 15-year-old self loved so much about this document…” She was, at the time, “obsessed with witches, theatre (here I am) and Patrick Swayze.”
Playwright/actress Heidi Schreck is immensely likeable. She calls her challenging piece a “blueprint,” sometimes going off book in its larger spirit. Ostensibly, there are sections during which you never know just quite what you’ll experience.
Our heroine begins by recreating one of numerous teenage presentations at her local American Legion Hall in Wenatchee, Washington. (Later, she’ll revert to her adult self.) She gives a timed speech, then must extemporize about an amendment drawn from a can. The contest is overseen by legionnaire Mike Iverson who, though later allotted an out of character speech, has no function but moral support and time keeping.
The only other participant is one of two New York high school students. Tonight, it’s Thursday Williams of Queens, whose dream it is to become Speaker of the House. Judging by passion, presence, and accomplishments to date, not a farfetched idea. (BTW, Ms. Williams comes from an immigrant family.) At the end of the evening, the young woman formally debates Schreck on whether to jettison the Constitution or try to repair it. Parameters are apparently fixed, content not so much; arguments incisive.
That Schreck’s home town was “an abortion free zone” is relevant because she had an abortion. How many states allow us freedom over our bodies? “William O. Douglas first declared that one thing the Constitution surely contains is the right to privacy, and that this allows a woman to put in an IUD, as long as she is married and as long as her husband says that it is okay!” Context is telling. She then candidly shares stories of severe domestic violence suffered by her grandmother, mother, and her mother’s siblings. Recourse was and remains limited.
In 2005, a month after a California woman received a restraining order against her husband, he kidnapped their three children. Terrified at discovering them gone, she telephoned seven times and repeatedly went to the station. Not only did the police do nothing, they never filed a report. Her daughters were murdered. The grieving mother was not allowed to sue. This would’ve been potentially less likely were an Equal Rights Amendment in place.
A large part of Schreck’s piece is focused on lack of legal support. History is mined, statistics horrifying. More women die at the hands of domestic partners than any other way. Laws are ambiguous. By using herself and her family as example, the playwright draws us in on a human level. She also makes much of what could easily been polemic, amusing and sympathetic.
From the get-go Schrenk engages the audience. Later we assist, encouraged to be vociferous during debate. People are randomly chosen to act as judges.
The play is smart, quick, and stimulating, evoking conversation after. Still, whatever your choice about the question posed, one can’t help but observe progress is unfathomably slow, its prevention inhibited by ancestors of those same white men who acknowledged only their own supremacy.
Director Oliver Butler does a bang-up job with timing, movement and emotional authenticity.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Heidi Schreck
What the Constitution Means to Me
by Heidi Schreck
Directed by Oliver Butler
The Helen Hayes Theate
240 West 44th Street