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'What the Constitution Means to Me' shows how the political is often personal

Heidi Schreck's Pulitzer-nominated play, 'What the Constitution Means to Me,' is an incredibly smart, searing look at how politics affects us all.
"What the Constitution Means to Me" Playwright and Star Heidi Schreck
"What the Constitution Means to Me" playwright and star Heidi Schreck backstage at the Helen Hayes in New York City on March 21, 2019.Chris Sorensen / The Washington Post via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Social media has been buzzing about Heidi Schreck's "What the Constitution Means to Me" since the play's acclaimed run in 2018 and later move to Broadway, but the production is now available to a larger audience than ever after being released on Amazon Prime Video.

The 100-minute show, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, grapples with the United States Constitution: who it includes, who it doesn't and how it is interpreted today.

Amid questions about the role of police in American society, controversial Supreme Court confirmations and an incredibly contentious presidential election, Schreck's search to find meaning in the country's founding document resonates now more than ever.

Schreck stars in the play, portraying both her teenage self, a 15-year-old girl who traveled across the country winning American Legion debate competitions about the U.S. Constitution, and her current, late-40s self.

For the majority of the play, Schreck is the only person speaking, telling stories of domestic violence, abortion and sexual abuse in her family's history. Other stories are cases that appeared before the Supreme Court and, every so often, Schreck plays an audio clip of actual Supreme Court debates and discussions, providing a look into the conversations behind major court decisions. She maintains an almost magnetic grip on the audience, effortlessly jumping from topic to topic and seamlessly integrating themes like immigration and inherited trauma alongside details of various legal cases.

Signage for "What the Constitution Means to Me" outside the Helen Hayes Theater in New York CityWalter McBride / Getty Images

I've been fortunate enough to see the play live three times, and then later chose to watch the filmed recording twice. Each time, it takes on new meaning. Schreck's stories are at times heart-wrenching and enraging; I watched it with a group of friends recently and everybody was crying by the end. She raises valid questions about who the Constitution protects, and mulls over who the founders left out. It's an incredibly smart, searing look at just how often the political is personal.

One particularly horrifying moment comes about two-thirds of the way through the show when Schreck recounts the story of Jessica Lenahan, a woman in Colorado who had a restraining order against her estranged former husband. When he kidnapped their three young daughters, Lenahan begged the local police department for help, which she was entitled to with her protective order. Instead, there was no intervention and the three young girls were killed. Lenahan sued the police department and won, but after the case worked its way through the U.S. court system, the Supreme Court ultimately removed a law that required Colorado police to arrest a person who had violated a protective order, ruling that the police did not have a Constitutional obligation to protect Lenahan or her children.

"I listened to this case so many times, and the thing I notice when I hear the justices speak ... is that they spend very little time talking about Jessica Lenahan as a human being," Schreck says in the film through tears. "They don't talk about her daughters ... Instead, they spend a very long time arguing about the word 'shall,' as in the phrase 'the police shall enforce a restraining order.' And look, I understand, even as a layperson, that language is crucial in law. But I find the balance of these two things..."

Schreck trails off, unable to finish her sentence, but plays a short clip of the oral arguments as Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Stephen Breyer debate the meaning of the word "shall" and if it really means "must." The eventual court decision was 7-2.

"Some constitutional scholars have called this decision the death of the 14th Amendment for women," Schreck continues. "It basically shuts down the possibility to look to our federal government, to our Constitution, for protection from physical and sexual violence."

It's a relief to watch someone stand on a stage and announce, in front of hundreds of people, night after night, just how hard it is to grapple with a founding document that has done so much for the country, but has also left huge swaths of that country unprotected and out in the cold.

It's a relief to have someone point out that sometimes, decisions made in the judicial system serve to benefit the people in power more than the people who need protection.

It's a relief to watch Schreck stand on stage and scream, pointing out that sometimes "Greek-tragedy crying" is the only sane reaction to the world.

"I have no idea what I was crying about," Schreck says, at the end of a story about nearly forgetting a beloved toy on a plane. "I don't know if I was crying for my Grandma Betty, or because of chemical depression, or just because he is such a cute little monkey, or maybe because of centuries and centuries of f***ing inherited trauma, or maybe, maybe, it's just the only appropriate response to everything right now!"

Rosdely Ciprian, Heidi Schreck, Thursday Williams and Mike Iveson during the Broadway opening night performance of "What The Constitution Means To Me" on March 31, 2019.Walter McBride / Getty Images

In the end, though, her message isn't one of anger or sadness or fear: It's about hope and optimism, and a wish for better things to come.

It's not a spoiler to say the show ends with a debate — in fact, that's one of the most talked-about aspects of the production. Either Rosdely Ciprian, 14, or Thursday Williams, 19, two students trained in Constitutional debate, join Schreck on stage every night. They engage in a debate over whether the U.S. Constitution should be abolished or replaced. At the end of every show, one audience member is selected to decide which side they agree with most.

And the arguments on both sides are compelling. Sometimes, it's pointed out that even if the Constitution is abolished, it will be rewritten by the same people who are in power now. Sometimes, it's pointed out that getting rid of the country's founding legal framework could do more harm than good. Always, the audience is left with thorny questions to wrestle with about what the best step forward is for the future of the country. And whichever side you land on, it's an important discussion to have.