What the Constitution Means to Me is a Broadway play that premiered in 2019. I had the opportunity to view it on Amazon Prime recently and am very glad that I did. In the play, the protagonist recounts her experiences as a teenager touring American Legion Halls around the county to participate in debates about the US Constitution. She was so successful that she was able to fully fund her college education with her winnings. The play begins with Schreck’s 15-year-old character eagerly extolling the virtues of the Constitution to the audience and “moderator.” She speaks of the Constitution as a ‘crucible,’ a pot in which many different ingredients are put and boiled together until they transform into something new. She also explained her special affinity for the 9th Amendment, which states that a right not specifically enumerated in the Constitution should not be interpreted as to not exist.
In expanding on this point, Schreck breaks away from her character to recount personal experiences, outlining the ways in which the Constitution functions as what she refers to as a ‘negative rights’ document. She explains that the Constitution focuses on the things you cannot be prevented from doing or having. It is not a ‘positive rights’ Constitution as some countries have which enumerate the rights and privileges guaranteed by the state. This is a reflection, she believes, of the fact that the document was written nearly 250 years ago by 39 white men, all of whom owned property and many of whom also held slaves.
Schreck shared the story of her own legal abortion and her family’s history of domestic violence. These are used as examples of ways in which Constitutional protections helped her and her family. However, she points out that the lack of positively defined rights puts vulnerable populations such as women, the poor, and minorities at risk. This has been demonstrated in recent history with the changes brought about by the Supreme Court to Constitutional questions regarding abortion rights, electoral policy, and religion.
Although the show is often humorous, there are tear-provoking moments. She speaks of the legacy of domestic violence in her family and tells the horrific story of a woman in Colorado (Castle Rock v. Gonzales 545 U.S. 748) who repeatedly begged police to enforce a restraining order against her ex-husband who had kidnapped their three young daughters. After the police department’s refusal to respond led to tragedy, she sued the police for failure to protect her constitutional rights by enforcing the restraining order. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court where they ruled against her, stating that she did not have the Constitutional right to protection.
The show concludes when Schreck is joined by a 14-year-old young woman. The two of them debate whether the Constitution should be rewritten to better reflect the needs of today’s America or retained as it could be Amended in the future. After their debate, a member of the audience is selected to determine whether to keep or toss the Constitution. A message at the closing credits let us know that in 185 Broadway performances, 123 audiences chose to keep the Constitution. I think a reason for this might be that throughout the play, Schreck’s appreciation of the possibilities imbued by the Constitution remain evident and allow for optimism.
I strongly recommend this play to anyone who has access to see it either live or via streaming. I found the performance of the writer telling her personal stories incredibly moving. It does not come across as a partisan piece but rather as drawing attention to the ways in which a document we pay very little attention to has shaped all of our lives.
If you are interested in learning more about the U.S. Constitution, we have a wonderful annotated version along with several treatises on Constitutional law at both branches of the Riverside County Law Library. Search our catalog here.
Written by: Laura