It’s a heart-piercing tale for Schreck and other women in her family, but it also reflects an attitude toward women in this country that continues to echo.
Schreck argues that that viewpoint had a deep effect on the Constitution, which dismissed the rights of women (and of minorities) from the beginning and, despite 27 amendments, doesn’t once mention the word “woman.” As we used to say in the 1960s, and as Schreck demonstrates in her pointed but non-polemical work, smoothly directed by Oliver Butler, the personal is political.
An Obie, Drama Desk and Theatre World award-winning performer and writer, Schreck has also written for and acted in TV shows, including “Nurse Jackie” and “Billions.” This play was an Off-Broadway hit before moving to Broadway.
The autobiographical drama, which is often lighthearted and extremely funny, takes place in two time zones, the immediate present and 1989 when, as a 15-year-old living in Wenatchee, WA., Schreck traveled around the country participating in debates on “What the Constitution Means to Me” in American Legion halls. She won enough money to later put herself through college, she tells the audience, in a manner so spontaneous that you are likely to think she is speaking without a script. (Not the case, though there seem to be a few ad libs.)
The set itself evokes one of those American Legion halls, its walls heavy with dozens of photographs of older white men. Schreck recalls that her audiences were generally all men, whom she remembers as always smoking cigars. Slipping into the persona of herself at 15, part awkward teen and part self-assured orator, she delivers a reconstruction of the speech that earned her college money (her mother, who generally saved everything, threw out the original, she has already explained). An officious time-keeper, played by Mike Iveson (who later becomes much more likeable—softening the play—when he plays himself), tries to keep an enthusiastic Heidi within the contest’s bounds.
Some of her arguments are charmingly simple. Extolling the virtue of the Ninth Amendment, she explains: “This means that just because a certain right is not listed in the Constitution, it doesn’t mean you don’t have that right. The fact is there was no possible way for the framers to put down every single right we have— the right to brush your teeth, sure you’ve got it, but how long do we want this document to be?”
It’s nice to think (though hard to tell) that some more conservative theatergoers may have unknowingly wandered into this sharply feminist show, and that maybe they will be persuaded by Schreck’s gentle approaches, even to one of her key subjects, violence toward women and the failures of government to shield women from it. Schreck seems to be naturally sunny, and she smiles a lot. She makes references later to the attacks on the Constitution today, but quietly.This is what civil discourse should sound like.
Soon after explicating the Ninth, young Heidi praises the Fourteenth Amendment. This amendment and others were passed mainly to give rights to former slaves, including the right to vote—though not for all of them.
“I want to emphasize that these amendments guaranteed equal rights only to men. Black women were not given these rights. No women were given these rights. The question of Native American rights never even came up.” She goes on to say that women, black and white, had to wait 54 more years to be allowed to vote—and the presiding official is not pleased. She apologizes for straying but adds in an aside to the audience: “My dad says this is what we call the penalty box of democracy. Sometimes you have to wait for things. Sometimes it’s better to fix one bad thing than to try to fix two bad things and fail.”
Teen Heidi goes on to address concerns raised by Amendment Fourteen that have more immediate relevance today: “One other tricky thing about this clause is that it doesn’t say anything about how immigrants can become citizens. It leaves it up to the whims of lawmakers to decide who they think is a ‘good’ immigrant or a ‘bad’ immigrant.” In 1882, she points out, the Chinese Exclusion Act made immigration from China until 1943.
In a roundabout way, Schreck slips in more references to her great-great grandmother, including five articles she found in local newspapers that appeared during one week around the time of her death: “Napavine Man Shoots Wife in Back,” “Husband Stomps Wife’s Face with Spiked Logging Boots,” “Jealous Husband Ties Woman to Bed for Three Days,” and “B. Phelps ran into her daughter’s apartment to find her son-in-law in the act of shooting her fleeing daughter. ‘Get out of here,’ he said. ‘Everything here belongs to me.’”
Asked to move on to Clause Three of the Fourteenth Amendment, the one about due process, Schreck (who passionately loves the Constitution, even when it evolves very slowly) explains how it led to the idea of a right to privacy and then to the Supreme Court decision that “gave a woman the right to decide what to do with her own body.” Well, not exactly. It said that “a doctor and his patient have a right to privacy, so that he can decide what to do with her body.”
As for birth control, Schreck argues, the Supreme Court justices in 1965 (all male until Sandra Day O’Connor took her seat in 1981), “wanted to make birth control legal, because, well because it turns out that William O. Douglas, who was 67 years old, was having an affair with a 22-year-old college student! And apparently three other Justices were probably having sex with young women as well. So, I’m thinking— right?— they really wanted to get the birth control flowing!”
This was news to me, and I’m glad I learned a few facts along with a new way to look at this country’s fraught history. Along with the recent play “Gloria: A Life,” about Gloria Steinem, the book Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and the movies about Justice Ginsburg, “Constitution” helps to remind us of how women’s lot in this country HAS improved and how much remains to be done.
Schreck’s play ends after its format transforms, and the show’s creator and star gets into a debate with an actual teenager (a rotating pair, each terrifically qualified) on the question: “Should we abolish the United States Constitution?” A coin toss determines who takes which side, and the audience is encouraged to applaud, boo, or stomp.
Then one member is asked to judge the winner. I imagine keeping the Constitution wins more often than not. But it doesn’t matter. We each get a small copy of the document to take home so we can make notes on what needs to change next.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.