For centuries, women’s pain has been deemed the only narrative worthy of storytelling. Whether in gonzo revenge fantasy or prestige drama, if we’re not suffering, it’s not worthy of serious examination. Just take a look at the Oscar nominations any year for the last 90 odd years.
Of late, that’s borne itself out even further, as we’ve asked women to perform their pain, to prove their suffering for us everywhere from the pages of the New York Times as accusations mounted against powerful men to the halls of Congress where Christine Blasey Ford was asked to vivisect her pain for naught.
With What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck subverts this tendency with trenchant humor and bruising optimism. The play finds new life direct from Broadway at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum with the formidable and warm Maria Dizzia literally stepping into Schreck’s shoes in a Center Theatre Group production playing through Feb. 28.
The play is a reclamation of a narrative that has asked women time and again to cut our veins open and spill out our pain for entertainment. In using the U.S. Constitution as a lens through which to examine generational trauma and inequality, Schreck burrows into that pain, while finding a way forward to a greater purpose.
The play lays Schreck’s story bare as a means of laying bare the soul of our nation itself – the Constitution’s shortcomings, the ways it fails to protect the most vulnerable time and time again, while still remaining an imperfect document worthy of study, even veneration. She laces her family narrative with pertinent recordings of court hearings, amusing recreations of her teenage speech-giving days at the American Legion, and observational humor found in relatable stories of attachment to childhood sock monkeys and more.
The pain is not performative – though it is familiar, tales of generational trauma and abuse that are both utterly personal and soberingly universal. Instead, the pain and all it generates – rage, hope, action – is a civics lesson. The ultimate reminder that the personal is political.
When it was announced What the Constitution Means to Me would live beyond Broadway without its creator playing herself, it was natural to fear it would lose some of its punch. After all, this is Schreck’s story – would it land in the same way when told by another? We need not have worried.
Dizzia is spectacular in the role, taking up Schreck’s story and her name with the utmost respect and her own deeply personal sense of connection. There is never a disconnect, no sense that she is telling anyone’s story but her own – perhaps because in Schreck’s hyper-personal tale, there are such deep truths, a specificity that breeds familiar and chilling reminders of what it is to be an American woman. Dizzia makes you believe she is Heidi, while also stepping outside of the role in moments to honor the responsibility of the story she has been asked to tell.
The magic trick of Constitution is its ability to plumb the depths of despair without ever falling subject to them. It’s a rollercoaster ride through genuine humor, deep sorrow, and pulsing, vibrating rage. Audiences should be angry after seeing this (and by should, I do mean must — looking at you, Supreme Court), but they should also be optimistic – about our nation’s capacity for forward motion, progress, and change.
It dazzles with this magic trick due to its final act shift, a high-wire act of an unfolding debate between real high school debater Rosdely Ciprian (the role is shared with Jocelyn Shek) and Dizzia. Ciprian first gets to take the stage to explain her background and break down the rules of debate, but then all bets are off as the two women are assigned positions with a flip of a coin and have to engage in a parliamentary-style debate contingent on audience participation (there is no shortage of hissing, hooping, and hollering).
Constitution hammers home its government lesson by actively engaging the audience in the true mark of democracy – participation. It’s a breathless bit of stagecraft, a real-time back-and-forth that has the power to both entrench and soften the rage one carries home.
Through Schreck’s personally crafted narrative, the play peers inside the framework (and framers) of our nation, reminding us it is our civic duty to question, to protest, to demand better. She weighs the soul of America and finds it both beautiful and wanting, a bittersweet exploration of how disillusionment can both obscure and fuel pride. What the Constitution Means to Me is an essential examination of our country and an urgent reminder that we should never stop holding the Constitution’s (and those who’ve sworn to uphold it) metaphorical feet to the fire. A