Midway through her mostly autobiographical play—she’s called it an “auto-legal-history;” The New York Times cleverly dubbed it an “autobiography with amendments”—Heidi Schreck demonstrates how generations of her family’s women cry.
They go prone, hands on their knees in squat position, like a horse about to buck. Then they wail. It’s a siren, a trumpet of despair that blares on a spectrum of occasion, ranging from the incident in which a sock monkey was accidentally left on an airplane to the multiple anecdotes of generational trauma Schreck recounts in her show.
There are innumerable times in What the Constitution Means to Me, the play that Schreck wrote and stars in and is now an Amazon movie, when you feel seen, when the collision of emotion, anecdote, and political insight reverberates to the core of your being; fireworks of enlightenment on a broad scale, little pings of “I so get that” on the ever-important “just getting through the day” agenda.
That hunched-over howl of sadness, pain, and the bruising bankruptcy of hope? It’s but just one of the ways What the Constitution Means to Me is perfectly suited for this moment.
In the play, Schreck, a playwright, screenwriter, and actress, recreates the speech about the Constitution she used to deliver in scholarship contests as a 15-year-old in Washington state. The speech was so good she paid her way through college with the money she earned from those contests. “It was 30 years ago and it was a state school, but thank you,” she quips.
Dressed in a sunny pastel yellow blazer and a patriotic enthusiasm to complement the sartorial choice, she, as her 15-year-old self, cheers the “miracle” of the document. The key to the contest’s prompt was to forge a personal connection to the Constitution, which she does with aplomb in “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution,” the title of the speech.
The play is, at its simplest, an update of that prompt: Schreck considering that personal connection from her current perspective as a grown woman who has spent countless hours researching the Supreme Court, Constitutional law, and her own family’s complicated American journey.
As the play goes on, she sheds that blazer and its youthful gumption. She discusses her family’s history of domestic violence, her abortion after college, and the ways in which the Constitution hasn’t just failed her and the women in her lineage, but the many Americans that the document—and the majority white men in black robes appointed to interpret it—have specifically decided are not human or worth protecting.
Schreck first began thinking of a play that remixed her experience as a teenager in those speech contests over a decade ago, and began performing early versions of it during the Obama administration. An off-Broadway mounting premiered in 2018 and transferred to Broadway for a run that ended in the summer of 2019, which meant that it was performed during the Trump administration’s family separation immigration policy, the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, and the mounting threat to Roe v. Wade.
The filmed version, directed by Marielle Heller, premieres Friday on Amazon in the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, and the president’s threats to invalidate the election results.
“Honestly, I find it terrifying that it becomes more timely,” Schreck says in a Zoom interview. “I thought it might become sort of, well, not obsolete. But I thought it would be less timely. I thought it might become a little bit more like a relic.”
She originally thought of the piece as more of a personal story than searing commentary on the times. She wanted to seriously think about what it would be like if she participated in that formative speech contest now that she’s an adult. That led her to excavate the stories about her family that she tells in the play, as well as to really dig into the first clause of the 14th Amendment’s issues of citizenship rights and equal protection.
(There is no way to type that out without it seeming unbearably unsexy, but trust that What the Constitution Means to Me, which earned Schreck two Tony nominations and a shortlisting for the Pulitzer Prize, is as infectiously funny as it is charged with lightning bolts of anger—and, thanks to a rousing debate finale against a gifted New York City teenager, civically invigorating as well.)
“Originally, it felt like a kind of calling out of the status quo, saying to myself and to the audience, ‘Hey, we feel very comfortable right now but let's take a look at how some of these structures aren’t serving us,’” Schreck says. “‘Let’s take a look at how people are still continuing to suffer under the laws of this country and let’s look at the ways that the Constitution is failing us, even though it seems to those of us who are privileged like everything is great.’”
As she performed it in the following years, that conversation seemed to get louder and louder. Now, speaking generally about the current moment, and now, speaking directly about the very morning on which we’re talking, with Coney Barrett being questioned by Congress as we Zoom, that conversation has become deafening.
“This feels like an emergency situation,” she says.
It’s certainly auspicious to be talking about the filmed version of Schreck’s play with the hearings as the soundtrack.
After years of performing the play, in which she takes a sledgehammer to the pedestal we’ve put the Supreme Court justices on and is emotionally exposed in ways that few actors allow themselves, she feels the exhaustion and the labor of being so candid... and so angry. Her twin daughters, who are 6 months old, had kept her up the night before our conversation, and the Democrats’ deference in the early moments of the hearing have zapped her.
“I started watching the hearings and immediately I became frustrated with how polite the Democrats were being,” she says. “The whole thing is such a farce, and I feel enraged because people’s lives are on the line. It’s not only who she is and what she represents, but the fact that the court will shift to a six-conservative-majority court for what it seems like will be a great deal of my daughters’ lifetime.”
She’s been working on the play, and now this filmed version, for 10 years at this point, which means a decade of reading and listening to Supreme Court cases “that have been decided so poorly.” It’s woken her to what she thinks are problems that have always been present in the structure of the country, a structure that has fostered racism and misogyny.
“I guess if there's any tiny speck of hope in the moment we’re in right now, it’s that it does feel like there’s a kind of reckoning happening,” she says. “We’re really reckoning now with the original sins of this country.”
What’s interesting about What the Constitution Means to Me is that, while intensely personal (there’s a reason for the possessiveness of that title), that reckoning is a collective experience. What American adult doesn’t recall the giddy positivity with which the U.S. government, political system, and history is taught and championed in our own grade-school learning?
Schreck’s disillusioned break as she transitions from recreating her teenage speech to stories about her family’s inherited trauma and reasoned arguments about the Constitution’s failings echoes, to varying degrees, our own, whether it’s through similarly personal experience or witnessing injustice happen around us.
She lacerates the rah-rah cheerleading and cautious, circuitous criticism we’re conditioned to engage in when it comes to government institutions. “What does it mean if this Constitution won’t protect us from the violence of men?” she says at one point in the show, almost in a roar, as if it’s a war cry exhumed from the pit of her soul. The country “has no fucking interest in protecting you,” she warns at another point.
Schreck says she was pushed to that level of brutal honesty through the process of workshopping and then performing the play, night after night. In the play, she spends time talking about the 2005 case Gonzales vs. Castle Rock, in which the Court ruled that the Colorado town and its police department could not be sued for failing to enforce a restraining order, which led to the murder of Jessica Lenahan-Gonzales’ three children by her estranged husband.
As she’d done for so many cases, Schreck would listen to the court’s deliberations on oyez.org. But the way in which the justices spent so much time debating the meaning of the word “shall” and almost no time talking about the human cost of the tragedy at the center of the case infuriated her. “These are men who had completely dissociated from the fact that these laws affect the lives of real people,” she says.
She’s become keenly aware that so passionately criticizing the Constitution and the Supreme Court makes her a target of conservative media and trolls, especially now that her Broadway show has been elevated to a much wider platform on Amazon. For as many audience members as she’d see weeping because they were so moved by the live production, she’d notice the exasperated, bored men who were “so not into it.”
Her mom sent her a misguided text recently, saying, “Oh, I saw the Facebook page of the preview, are you doing okay?” Comments on the film’s trailer excoriated her for calling the Constitution a “living document,” and insulted her as an “idiot,” “stupid,” “a Communist,” “ugly,” and “middle-aged.” “Which, I mean, I am middle-aged,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Also Breitbart found me…”
If that reaction is par for the course, the way in which the work has moved so many people already is certainly rare.
Hillary Clinton ranks among the notables to sing its praises, calling it “an empowering call to consider what it means to be a citizen” on Twitter. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg caught a performance last summer. There’s a point in the show when Schreck plays an audio clip of Ginsburg saying, “People ask me sometimes when do you think it will be enough women on the court? And my answer is, ‘When there are nine.’” That night the audience leapt into a standing ovation after the line.
Ginsburg’s death since the Broadway run’s end is one of the news events that have drawn the play’s power into sharper focus.
“I think one of the hardest things about her passing when she did is that I, like so many people, had a longing just to celebrate her extraordinary life and her achievements,” Schreck says, alluding to one of those aforementioned cries over the news. “But it felt impossible because there was the specter of what her death meant and what a precarious position it put the country in.”
When she found out, she was holding one of her daughters, who was just old enough to see her mom’s tears and instinctively know something wasn’t right.
The play—and the film—ends with Schreck engaging with a live debate against a local teenager who participates in similar speech and debate programs that she did all those years ago. Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams alternated performances on Broadway, deciding via coin flip whether they’d argue against Schreck either to abolish or keep the Constitution. The debate was improvised each night, and the audience would decide whose side won.
The debate is a crack way to practicalize the issues that Schreck examines in the play. But, perhaps even more importantly, it is hopeful.
It is impossible not to watch the young women orate with such verve about the government and actionable ways in which things can be fixed and not be inspired about the future of the country, whatever context the current administration’s horrors might provide. In the show, Schreck stirringly tells them, “Sometimes I feel like you are shining a light backwards into the darkness so I can follow you into the future.”
While that generation is certainly inspiring, Schreck does caution now, “I don’t want to put the burden of symbolizing hope onto them.”
“It’s not their job to give us hope,” she says. “However, I do feel like doing the debate every night motivated me to want to do more, to be an activist, to be active. I felt like watching these girls bring their optimism, their passion, and their brilliance to the problems of our country made me feel like I owed it to them to step up.”
“If that debate does anything,” she says—and it could be argued that this next bit applies to the play as a whole—“I hope it motivates those of us who are older to like, get in there and fight for those who are younger.”