10/17/2020 WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME Amazon Prime
When writer/actor Heidi Schreck (Grand Concourse) was 14, her mother “pushed” her to enter Constitution Oratory Contests sponsored by the American Legion, hoping to earn money for college. She entered so many, and won so many, that she succeeded in earning enough for her entire college education (“state college 25 years ago, of course”).
Her 2017 play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is her one-woman (ish) play about the experience, using her youthful speeches as springboards to relate her life to the Constitution, riffing seemingly off-the-cuff (don’t be fooled, it’s all strictly scripted) on women’s rights, immigration, domestic abuse, abortion, and her (often traumatic) family history. It all eventually leads to a passionate critique of the conservative “originalism” espoused by seemingly ALL Republican-appointed justices, but most notably by Antonin Scalia (whose notorious opinion in Castle Rock v. Gonzales, a suit brought by a battered wife against a police department that neglected to respond to her abusive husband’s violation of a restraining order -- a violation that led to him murdering the couples’ daughters). Scalia’s ruling against Gonzales hinged on insisting that “shall” does not mean “must,” striking down state laws that were designed to protect abused women, in effect giving police departments freedom to ignore restraining order violations.
If this sounds high-school-debate-club dry, it’s not. In a new filmed production of the play (available on Amazon Prime Video), Ms. Schreck proves herself an amiable and compelling orator, an actress of immense appeal and range who can jump from bemused recollection to wry commentary to passionately angry advocacy with the ease of a master musician segueing from movement to movement. She fully engages the audience, even through the videographer’s camera, and creates a “character” (presumably not unlike herself and her 15-tear-old self) with the charm and charisma we wish our Middle School Civics teachers had had.
She is also not afraid to explain intricate matters of legal language in easy-to-follow terms, making firm connections between her life and the Constitution (particularly Amendments 9 and 14 Clause 1) (See addendum below). When she talks about her abused grandmother Bette, it is with affectionate remembrance, despite Bette’s eventual betrayal of Ms. Schreck’s mother and aunt (at the criminal assault trial of her husband, she testified her daughters were lying about witnessing the violence). It should also be noted that Bette’s own mother was sent away from her East Coast home as a mail-order bride to a Seattle logger, eventually dying in a mental hospital at age 36 of “melancholia.” Toss in an abortion at a young age and a near-rape experience in college, and you can see there is ample cause for bitterness and a less-than-rosy attitude towards men in general.
Yet Ms. Schreck remains intensely (some may say insanely) optimistic towards men, even writing a role for a (mostly) silent American Legion debate moderator (played with stone-faced calm by Mike Iveson), who at one point drops character to talk about his own experiences (and compromises) as an “out” gay man. Ms. Schreck limits her anger to the limits of the Constitution itself, to the rights it doesn’t protect, to the insanity of an originalist interpretation of a 250-year-old document “written by white men for the benefit of white men”, and especially Judge Scalia, whose opinion on Castle Rock v. Gonzales mentions the word “shall” countless times but the names of the murdered girls not once.
She fully embraces Justice William O. Douglas’ oft-maligned-by-originalists statement about the “penumbra” of the constitution, that grey area between what was actually written and what we experience today (NOT the framers’ original intent) -- "penumbral rights of privacy and repose," as it were. This is where that versatile ninth amendment plays such an important role in landmark cases such as Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education, and, most recently, 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges (Marriage Equality).
The play eventually becomes a seemingly unscripted debate when she brings out Rosdely Ciprian, a young teenage debating champion, to engage in an actual debate on “Should the Constitution be Abolished.” The pro and con sides are assigned at random, and an audience member is chosen to select the winner. It is apparently relevant that during the original run of the show, the Kavanagh confirmation hearings were going on and the percentage of votes in favor of abolishing the constitution rose dramatically during the weeks of the hearing.
Conservatives may argue (and have argued, particularly in one of the few negative reviews of the play, the one appearing the New Republic), that its arguments are an invitation to liberal Judicial Activism. If I may offer a political opinion here, “Activism” occurs on both the left and right. It can (and should) be argued that the Castle Rock v. Gonzales decision was an activist move by conservatives who didn’t like the Colorado law about enforcing restraining orders. “Judicial Activism,” IMHO, is a waffle-y empty phrase used whenever the court makes a decision a particular commentator doesn’t like.
Yes, What the Constitution Means to Me is an unashamedly left(ish) and feminist vision of the Constitution. Yes, it is an unashamedly scholarly civics lesson. It is also a brilliantly structured script (so much better than Ms. Schreck’s Grand Concourse, which, truth to tell, I found contrived and disappointing). It is an unashamedly affectionate “love letter” to the document, an enormously entertaining “memoir” delivered by an exquisitely talented writer and actor, and a most excellent choice for your home viewing.
And it is VERY relevant today, especially given the Constitutional crisis looming with the election.
This final comment may be eminently debatable – Bring it On!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #HeidiSchreck #WhatTheConstitutionMeansToMe)
AMENDMENT IX – The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
AMENDMENT XIV – All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.