Review: ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ on Amazon Prime Video

The set of "What the Constitution Means to Me" at the New York Theatre Workshop

By Jonathan Spira on 17 October 2020
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At the age of 15, Heidi Schreck was a relentless debater and high school student in Wenatchee, Washington, participating and triumphing in the American Legion Oratorical Contests.  A quarter of a century later, her memories of these experiences formed the basis of a play that, in December 2018, I called “the best civics class ever.” 

I first saw “What the Constitution Means to Me” at the New York Theatre Workshop in the fall of 2018, and saw it again when it opened on Broadway at the Hayes Theater the following year. Each time I saw it, the ushers handed out copies of a printed version of the Constitution in addition to a program or Playbill, something that couldn’t easily be translated to the streaming platform although I still have at least one of the copies I received.

Now Schreck has brought the show that won an Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding new play to a new platform, Prime Video, Amazon’s on-demand streaming service, working with “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” director Marielle Heller to achieve this.

The contests focused on the history of U.S. law and the ability to think and speak clearly. What Schreck won in these debate competitions paid for her college tuition at a state school, she proudly informs us.

Indeed, “What the Constitution Means to Me” was the topic of her debates, arguing it was more of a crucible of “sizzling and steamy conflict,” while her erstwhile opponent, Becky Lee Dobbins from Lawrence, Kansas, would explain “how the Constitution was like a patchwork quilt,” according to Schreck.

Little did Schreck know that the very week the play made its online premiere, senators in Washington would be posing a very similar question to the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, not to mention I saw the play for the first time immediately following the Senate hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

The set indeed sets the stage: a 1980s-style wood auditorium stage with a podium, the Stars and Stripes and a Legion flag on poles, and framed mostly black-and-white photographic portraits of perhaps over one hundred white male veterans on the wall, all based on Schreck’s recollections of her debating days.

At the start of the play, Schreck asks white male property owners to raise their hands while she points out that everyone in the audience who did not raise his or her hand had been excluded from having a voice in the creation of the United States and the Constitution.

As she continues, under the watchful eye of Mike Iveson, who, as moderator, could pass for one of the Wenatchee Legionnaires, Schreck conjures up her 15-year-old self on stage. She moves back and forth between then and now to tell what she has learnt since then and to share the stories of some of her female ancestors including Grandma betty who ultimately may have benefitted from some of the amendments to the Constitution that she holds so dear.

More than halfway into the show, Schreck pays and reflects on an audio clip from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, where RBG points out the flaw in being literal about the Constitution.  The document reflecting the supreme law of the land “was designed to protect the men who made it and their property, which was sometimes people, from the government.”

RBG is not the only member of the Supremes who makes an appearance.  Schreck also plays a 1965 audio clip from court deliberations. “Here are nine men deciding the fate of birth control, four of whom are cheating on their wives,” she breezily informs us.

Towards the end of the play, Schreck invites, as had been her custom when the play was being performed live, a high school student, Rosdely Cipran, to debate her on the topic of whether the Constitution should be abolished.

In theaters, the play ends with the audience deciding whether to keep the imperfect but alterable Constitution or to rip it up and start over. Most audiences voted to stick with it.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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