Review: What the Constitution Means to Me Returns on Film, and Not a Moment Too Soon
Heidi Schreck's Tony-nominated play comes to Amazon Prime Video.
On Oct. 7, my sister came home, shaken. She then told me that two girls who went to her daughter's school were dead: their dad had stabbed them, and then killed himself. Later, I read that the police had been called to that house multiple times before for domestic violence calls.
That night, I watched Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me, released on Amazon Prime Video beginning October 16. At one point, Schreck quotes a statistic that, though I've heard it before, still knocks me over: "This century, the 21st century, more American women have been killed by their male partners than American have died in wars, including 9/11."
In the middle of watching the film, I started crying.
What the Constitution Means to Me played off-off Broadway in 2017, then off-Broadway in 2018 before transferring to Broadway in 2019, earning a Tony nomination and becoming a Pulitzer finalist on the way. In it, Schreck plays a version of herself at 15, when she traveled the country giving speeches about the US Constitution for prize money. Because of her passion for that document, and because she was an incredibly persuasive public speaker, she was able to win enough money to pay for college.
Constitution also has Schreck revisiting her prize-winning speech as a less idealistic adult woman. She questions what it was she loved about the Constitution, one that enshrined many protections for white men and their property, but few for people of color, and none for women. "Our [women's] bodies had just been left out of this document from the beginning," says Schreck.
As part of the parameters of the original oratory contest, Schreck had to draw a direct personal connection between the Constitution and her own life. In the show, she does it by explaining that the document has failed the women in her family. Her great-grandmother was a mail-order bride who died at 36 of melancholia. Her grandmother endured an abusive husband because federal law did not allow her to press charges against him. Today, as Schreck points out, America is the 10th most dangerous country in the world for women.
The show's Broadway run has been preserved on film and is now being distributed on Amazon Prime. While Oliver Butler directed the stage show, the movie was filmed during its final week on Broadway by Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Can You Ever Forgive Me?). If you have seen Hannah Gadsby's Nanette, you are familiar with this kind of first-person, fourth-wall-breaking storytelling — and its unapologetic feminist stance.
While Schreck's exuberant performance early in the show fits perfectly on a Broadway stage, it is when she transforms into her more stoic older self that the real magic of the filmed version is revealed. Heller captures the quietness that does not register the same way from a more distant theater seat, from the glistening in Schreck's eyes as she talks about her grandmother, to the moment when she grabs her co-star Mike Iveson's hand for support (which I had never seen before). The intimacy gives Schreck's performance an added authenticity, that makes you feel like you're in the presence of a dear friend.
At the beginning of Constitution, Schreck says she's been performing the show for 10 years and adds, "Every time I walk out there, the world has changed." Indeed, the show itself has not changed much since I last saw it in 2018, during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. But the news has somehow gotten worse.
We're in the middle of a pandemic and a monumental election. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has died, and Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose are at risk. Breonna Taylor is dead because police officers killed her in her own home and the law could not protect her or give her, or other Black people, justice.
It seems every time I feel pulled down by the darkness of the moment, this show returns to pull me back up, like my own personal totem. And right now, What the Constitution Means to Me arrives as a jolt of adrenaline to get us over the finish line to Nov. 3. The show may at times dive deep into the pits of despair, but its final coda is why I went back to it three times while it was onstage, and again now.
Constitution ends with a parliamentary-style debate between Schreck and Rosdely Ciprian, a local teenager and master debater, on whether to keep or abolish the US Constitution. It's a moment of oratorical excellence but also human connection, showing that two people can be on an opposing side of an argument, but can still laugh together and sit side by side in the end. If only Congress, or a Presidential debate, can be that again.
It's also a testament to hope and perseverance. In every single version that I have seen of Constitution, Schreck asks her fellow orator, "What do you imagine your life will be like in 20 years?" The answers have differed every time but the lesson is the same: We may be trapped in a penumbra, but we cannot stand still. We have to keep hoping, fighting, clawing our way to the light.