New Yorkers went wild over Heidi Schreck’s highly “the personal is the political” memoir play What the Constitution Means to Me. The show was extended several times, picked up two Tony Award nominations, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Schreck has moved on from the show, where she played herself, but the show lives on. It’s now here in Los Angeles, presented by Center Theatre Group (seen opening night, Jan. 17) at the Mark Taper Forum. It stars Maria Dizzia in the powerhouse lead role, directed by Oliver Butler. Performances will continue through February 23.
Two other performers share the stage with Dizzia, and in this mounting, they include original Broadway cast members Mike Iveson playing an American Legion hall officer and debate monitor, and the now 15-year-old African-American New Yorker Rosdely Ciprian as a young debater of the next generation picking up where Schreck left off 30 years ago. Fourteen-year-old L.A.-area Chinese-American Jocelyn Shek alternates in the role with Ciprian, each performing four times a week. Shreck will travel to Chicago for a run in the spring on a national tour.
Given prominent billing in the program are Gabriel Marin and Jessica Savage as understudies for Iveson and Dizzia.
Schreck’s play crosses a number of boundaries. It’s drama, laugh-out-loud comedy in parts, and poignantly heartbreaking in others. Formally, it’s a memoir play cum performance piece cum Chautauqua lecture cum podcast cum unscripted debate cum seminar with live audience cum Q&A.
The play reaches back to the late 1980s, when 15-year-old Heidi, from her hometown of Wenatchee, Wash. (Apple Capital of the World), traveled across the United States to participate in Constitutional debate competitions sponsored by the American Legion, earning her college tuition with her prize-winning reflections on “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Aside from genre-bending in form, the play engages in a number of other kinds of shape-shifting. Dizzia portrays both Heidi Schreck now, a mature, wiser and perhaps more cynical woman in her 40s, and wistfully, without any change of clothes, the 15-year-old she once was. Later, when she engages spontaneously with the teenage debater, she can’t possibly still be Heidi Schreck; by now she must be herself, Maria Dizzia. Enough to make you dizzy (sorry!) sorting out everyone’s identity at any moment.
The droll American Legion guy too is a shape-shifter. The character is identified as Mike Iveson, but that’s the actor’s name. At one point, the actor drops the stiff drill-sergeant martinet rule-maker persona and becomes what he purports to be himself. Later on, he drops that too and just serves Ms. Dizzia in neither of those personas by handing her cue cards. I would also observe that the “understudy for Mike Iveson,” the aforementioned Gabriel Marin, seemingly would play “Mike Iveson,” not himself as “Gabriel Marin.” The audience also goes through an identity change: “Schreck” tells us we are the American Legion audience and we are all older white men smokers. Now I’m even dizzia.
What we relish over the course of 105 minutes with no intermission is a fresh and so profoundly needed understanding of our Constitution. Not every article and section, of course, but the spirit of it.
All those theatrical fabrications aside, what we relish over the course of 105 minutes with no intermission is a fresh and so profoundly needed understanding of our Constitution. Not every article and section, of course, but the spirit of it. As “Schreck” recounts the tragic history of four generations of women in her own family, she folds in the ways in which what we presume to be constitutional protections simply did not apply. The rights we take for granted did not even exist in earlier times.
The Constitution is, indeed, a growing, living document, and in these times it’s vital to remember that all living things die sooner or later. Will this ancient document, the oldest Constitution still in use in the world today, survive the beating it’s been given since 2016? Schreck trained for her American Legion talks with a book called Your Rugged Constitution, endorsed by Herbert Hoover. How “rugged” it will remain under the likes of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointees, not to mention his loyalists in Congress, remains the critical open question of our day.
Lodged in between the playwright’s weirdly loopy digressions, with metaphors for the Constitution (“a witches’ brew in a cauldron” or “a patchwork quilt” or a “crucible”) that sound intentionally sophomoric and not terribly enlightening, Schreck has placed informative insights into the nature of the document Americans live by.
“Penumbra.” This word means the space between light and darkness. Its use in the constitutional sense is ascribed to Chief Justice William O. Douglas, who started off as a conservative appointee and over time became one of the great liberal thinkers on the Court. Take the elliptical Ninth Amendment, for example: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
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Those 21 vague words would take centuries to come into their own as they turned into a defense of rights not even imaginable in the 18th century. They evoke the poetry of shifting light “trapped between what we can see and what we can’t,” what the Founders knew they could not envision in their own time but which future Americans would. “Who we are now may not be who we will become.”
The 14th and 15th, the so-called “Reconstruction” Amendments—concerning persons born in the United States defined as citizens—effectively only applied to males, but in terms of voting, fair trial, property, and many other rights, those amendments, with Jim Crow and other repressive systems, did not even apply to all males. Only with the modern civil rights movement did even a glimmer of true enforcement of those amendments come into play, and now even those advances are threatened: Massive voter suppression goes on virtually unchallenged in many states, immigrants’ native-born children are now questioned as to the legitimacy of their citizenship, while Native Americans still occupy a kind of nebulous Never-Neverland status.
The eternal struggle for women to become full citizens, enjoying reproductive freedom and equality under the law, shows how little women were protected by the same meticulous attention to “rights” that white males have always claimed. Schreck includes in the play (add “docudrama” to the shape-shifting list) audio clips of a ludicrous but tragic argument among Supreme Court justices as to what the word “shall” means, complete with audible coughing, hemming and hawing when it comes to women’s rights. (And don’t forget, the 1857 Dred Scott case, where the Supreme Court found that a Black person by definition was not entitled to American citizenship, was decided by a panel of justices, four of whom owned slaves!)
The next to final section has Dizzia (who by this point surely cannot still be playing Schreck) matching wits with a teenage girl debater. It’s hard to tell how scripted or spontaneous this portion is. The question is, Should the Constitution be preserved or discarded? Dizzia, who as Schreck just convinced us of the ever-evolving importance of the document, argues that we should not be held captive to the ideas of long-dead men. Was it not Jefferson himself who proposed that the Constitution be rewritten every generation? Wasn’t it, right from the start, written irredeemably for propertied white men, never to be righted? Our teenager (Rosdely Ciprian on opening night) argues that it can still serve today’s and future Americans as more light is allowed to shine into the penumbra where real people live out their lives. And if abolished, what would take its place? Another document that, given some of the politicians we see today, could possibly be worse! It’s a question that needs to be asked, not just in every generation, but—as we are seeing in Congress right now in the impeachment trial—every day.
In the final, much slighter portion of the evening (it’s not really a play anymore), Dizzia and the teenager answer questions from the audience that were left in a box at the end of the previous performance. This part did not appear to be scripted.
Are you afraid of bugs? What do you like for breakfast? What’s the first concert you ever attended? What would you choose as the theme if you were going to open a theme hotel? How do you imagine your life in 50 years?
Someone from the company staff presumably chose those questions, and I couldn’t help thinking: Did they purposely select out the most trivial, inconsequential queries just to gladden the mood at the end of the play? Or did they want to show how, after almost two hours of intense debate and conversation about the United States Constitution, some theatergoers last night left the Mark Taper Forum and all they were interested in were such inanities?
As part of the “performance,” copies of the Constitution, printed by the ACLU, were distributed to every member of the audience.
The creative team features scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Michael Krass, lighting design by Jen Schriever, and sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar.
Provocative, absorbing and attention-grabbing in every way, if the Constitution means anything to you, see What the Constitution Means to Me.
Tickets are available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling (213) 628-2772, or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles). The Mark Taper Forum is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012.
Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane Uni