“Cocktails After Curtain”
What “What The Constitution Means To Me” Means To Me
By Jagger Waters
I saw Heidi Schreck’s “What The Constitution Means To Me” four days before Georgia Governor Kemp signed the fetal heartbeat abortion bill. The echo chamber of violent rhetoric that unfolded online in response couldn’t be more relevant to this play’s content. I don’t think my Twitter timeline will ever be the same.
The experience of “What The Constitution Means To Me” is more of an educational, horrifying and (at times) painfully comedic seminar than a traditional play. With the help of only two other performers, Schreck supports the entire performance. The writer plays her fifteen year old self in a high school competition, tying inherited generational trauma to different constitutional amendments and exploring how each amendment has historically failed to protect women, including many women in her own family. At the end of the performance, the audience is challenged to decide whether to abolish or keep the Constitution itself. Each night, the results are different.
Through Schreck’s storytelling device, the audience learns how women trapped in physically and emotionally abusive environments will often convince other women and their own children to endure the abuse, as well. To me, this bears a chilling resemblance to the women online defending the total ban on abortion, even in cases of incest and rape. And then, there’s Heidi’s paralyzing reminder that the rate of women murdered by an intimate partner or someone they know has increased since the show’s opening in fall 2018.
I try to keep my reactions within the framing devices Schreck uses in her play. The explosive responses in favor and against women’s reproductive rights make me wonder what the founding fathers would think about the sheer speed of online discourse, and how it affects the process of democracy. But that’s exactly what Schreck asks us to stop asking ourselves. After all, how relevant are the outdated opinions of “bloodletting Washington and airbathing Franklin,” now? Schreck questions our sentimentality towards early American revolutionary documents. She walks the audience through how the language of the Constitution itself was designed to protect one version of American citizen: white, landowning men. Why continue to celebrate figures whose perspectives on slavery, equality and women have fossilized into embarrassing stains upon our nation’s origin story? Misogyny never ages well.
I imagine a world without Schreck’s play, if she hadn’t been able to have an abortion at 15 years old. I imagine her mother, her grandmother, and great grandmother, each one stunted at the moment of motherhood and incapable of following their dreams. What haunts me about Schreck’s play is the lost potential of each of these women; a kind of loss it’s not unrealistic to envision for American girls of menstruating age in the states where abortion and birth control may rapidly become inaccessible. It makes me want to reach backwards through time to inscribe the female pronoun onto the Magna Carta.
Schreck’s writing leaves me changed, incapable of forgetting the details of real and remarkably recent Supreme Court cases like Castle Rock v Gonzales (2005). As she describes a Colorado mother’s multiple attempts to contact police before, during, and after her abusive ex husband (against whom she already had a restraining order) abducted and murdered their three children, I find myself realizing the court’s dismissal before Schreck could finish. I’ll never make sense of how the majority of the Supreme Court could rule against a helpless grieving mother, especially Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who also happens to be a mother of three. How could anyone possibly justify this woman’s (this American citizen’s) entirely preventable suffering, brought on by the neglect of the legal system itself? I take offense that technicalities of jurisdiction were used against a person who did nothing but ask for someone to believe her, and I know that’s what Schreck intended.
I inundate myself with technical questions to avoid my own emotional response. Is the autonomy of manhood a constitutional right? A man born on American soil is and always has been protected under the law as a citizen. Is the autonomy of womanhood a constitutional right? If the female body is a vessel in which other American citizens can grow, does that mean the answer is no? Furthermore, does a woman’s body become property of the state from the moment a fetus is conceived until the moment of birth? Can we succeed in the fight for reproductive rights by bombarding anti choice legislation with logistical and pragmatic questions?
I realize my response to Schreck’s play are less about plot, structure, and character and more about the current state of affairs. But I think that’s what she wanted. Having to defend abortion and women’s rights on a constitutional level, trying to work within the restrictive and exclusionary language of centuries-old documents, is dehumanizing to the experience of womanhood. The hypocrisy behind the pro life movement is a paralyzing wound in the path of desperately needed political and cultural progress. We need Schreck’s play (and more plays like it) whether or not it checks every single box to satisfy our entertainment itch. After all, some of the most horrifying and thrilling stories of all aren’t fiction. They’re written into our history.
Note: This is not a critical review of “What The Constitution Means To Me.” Jagger Waters and We The Women encourage readers to see “What The Constitution Means To Me” at the Helen Hayes Theater.
“What The Constitution Means To Me”
Playwright: Heidi Schreck
Director: Oliver Butler
Actors for the performance attended: Heidi Schreck, Mike Iveson, and Rosdely Ciprian
“What The Constitution Means To Me” performs through August 24 at the Helen Hayes Theater. Get your tickets here: https://constitutionbroadway.com
Congratulations to Heidi Schreck on her nomination (and being a finalist) for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Award nominations, and winning the 2019 Obie Award for Best New American Play!