theater review

New York’s Theater Critic and Supreme Court Correspondent Discuss What the Constitution Means to Me

Heidi Schreck in What the Constitution Means to Me. Photo: Joan Marcus

Barely three months after completing its extended run at New York Theatre Workshop and the Greenwich House Theater, Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me has made the jump to Broadway. At this point, it isn’t hard to find out what I think about the play — or, for that matter, what Tony Kushner thinks of it — and so I thought, in the show’s own spirit of debate, it would be great to talk to someone about it. Enter my colleague Irin Carmon, a senior correspondent at New York and co-author of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I spend most of my waking life writing about theater; Irin spends hers writing about where gender, the law, and politics meet. What the Constitution Means to Me might be called, to steal from its own metaphors, a crucible of all of the above. So Irin and I took to Google Chat to see what Schreck’s “living, warm-blooded, steamy document” means to us.

Irin Carmon: My first theater writing — how should we start?

Sara Holdren: Well, are there specific things from the show that you’re still thinking about today? Things that stuck with you?

I.C.: I need to confess that I was afraid I would hate it.

S.H.: Oh, that’s fascinating! Why?

I.C.: I obviously approve of and celebrate its intentions. But political art that doesn’t feel self-celebrating or preachy is hard.

S.H.: The hardest. And it’s everywhere these days, in extremely mediocre forms.

I.C.: I did not like Gloria: A Life. Nanette left me cold. I’m still irritated about Sweat.

S.H.: I expected to hate Gloria and walked out really moved, though I think I was moved by the real-life facts rather than by the play as a piece of theater. Nanette left me pretty cold too, and colder the further I get from it. But in a way I think that Schreck is attempting something like what Hannah Gadsby is attempting and succeeding on many more levels. Gadsby has that great moment in Nanette where she says that she’s angry but she doesn’t have the right to spread anger — but I don’t think that she’s actually held herself to that standard throughout the piece. Whereas there’s something much more delicately balanced and expansively humane about what Schreck is doing. By the time Mike Iveson — the male actor who’s in the play, the source of “positive male energy,” they joke, but seriously — comes forward to talk to us as himself, instead of as his legionnaire character, we really need to hear from him. He’s integral to the piece — as are Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams, the young women of color who debate with Schreck at the end of the play on alternate evenings. [I saw Thursday this time; Irin saw Rosdely.]

I.C.: There’s an amazing moment in that debate when Rosdely snaps at Heidi, “Pandering!” And I guess I want to be pandered to just enough as an audience member — but not too much. An inherent challenge of works like Nanette is drawing in the 101 audience while being sophisticated and nuanced enough for your most engaged people, the ones who already knew about Picasso. When we made Notorious RBG, the book, we thought about how to speak to both. But as I hope we all know, the most layered politics are no substitute for a story and characters and emotional stakes. So ultimately, I was taken aback by how emotionally affected I was by the play. I kept wondering why I was on the verge of tears the entire time.

S.H.: I’ve seen the show three times now in three different iterations.
Back in 2017 at the Wild Project (the tiniest little room in the East Village), then last year at New York Theatre Workshop, and now on Broadway. And I think Schreck’s performance, while it hasn’t changed in huge ways, has developed muscles. It’s gotten more visceral — more risky and exposed. The pain of it all — and the defiance — is more visible underneath what she calls her “psychotic politeness.”

I.C.: Yes! It was like Tracy Flick’s revenge.

S.H.: But I think we’re also on the verge of tears (me too!) because there really is a solid-as-a-brick-shit-house backbone in there. Schreck has us in hand both as a performer and as the constructor of the play. I don’t feel like I’m being manipulated (in a bad way) or, worse, like I’m in one of those horrible, mushy “Let me read you my diary and call it art” situations. She really is pulling off the double whammy of Tricky Theater: Political and Memoir.

I.C.: She starts out brilliantly with this familiar performance of white womanhood that toggles between her younger self and the present day: stiff-jawed cheer, barely disguised ambition, the horniness and the fear of youth. And what the generational iterations have in common, you realize as it goes on, is that even our most compliant performances won’t save us from violence, and our institutions sure as hell won’t. I know you wrote about seeing the show during the Kavanaugh-Ford hearings, before their grim resolution affirmed that even being the nicest, most accommodating, most careful and gentle and credentialed white woman won’t be enough in the face of brute institutional power.

S.H.: Yes. And I cried over those hearings — cried in my own version of the bleak, intense, dramatic way Schreck talks about in the show (her “Greek Tragedy Crying”). So it’s a pretty amazing thing to see her both enact and analyze that kind of emotional response. To dig to the deep, ugly roots of it and get past the “Why am I crying? I can’t do anything about this” stage — the stage where we put our heads down and go on — and try to get to some sort of reckoning. Some sort of going on, but with heads up.

I.C.: What gives the play its emotional valence, I think, is the intimate storytelling of her family that speaks more vividly than any statistic she cites (my least favorite part) about the ordinariness of violence or the fear of violence in women’s lives.

S.H.: I agree with you about the statistics — they’re horrifying, but in that kind of numbing way. And I’m never a fan of news-shaming: “If you don’t know this fact, you should read more!” Those moments come off as relatively cheaper or clunkier partly because the biographical material Schreck surrounds them with is so on fire, so real and devastating but also so carefully arranged into a dramatic arc. The statistics feel deadening while the play feels invigorating.

I.C.: But we’ve seen strong personal, emotional storytelling before. The high-stakes risk that pays off, I think, is the huge ambition of making this a piece of constitutional analysis.

S.H.: Yes — that’s the jump. She’s using memoir as a vaulting horse up into a broader, extremely sophisticated conversation. A legal one, a historical one —

I.C.: And that’s ultimately what I found so bold and moving: That she unapologetically puts herself — and to some extent the story of other people left out of the Constitution — at the center of it. She shows how the quotidian reality of the Supreme Court is a bunch of men (save four women, ever) quibbling over the statutory construction of the word “shall,” but it is equally true that it’s an expression of our values and hierarchies. We overheard someone as we left the theater saying, “That’s not what the Constitution is about! She didn’t even mention the Bill of Rights.”

S.H.: Lord, what a response. Did they miss the last two words of the title entirely?

I.C.: And, actually, shaping your constitutional analysis around the 14th Amendment is as good a place to grasp the unevenly kept promises of the document as anywhere else. Ask RBG! Although I have some tiny, uh, quibbles there.

S.H.: Go for it.

I.C.: Okay, I feel like the most pedantic person on earth, but RBG’s cases as a litigator were NOT about equal pay and sexual harassment, although the underlying principles didn’t preclude those issues.

S.H.: It’s not pedantic to know your shit.

I.C.: It matters because what RBG actually did would lend itself seamlessly to the play’s arguments. She was up against a century of cases that said that discrimination was a favor to (white) women, a pedestal that she and her fellow feminist litigators correctly identified as a cage. Picking up from where brilliant theorists like Pauli Murray had left off, she convinced nine male members of the Supreme Court through a series of cases that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause — another unfulfilled promise of Reconstruction — applied to gender. And not only to women, but to men whose roles the law was constricting. She represented men who wanted to be recognized by the law as caregivers or spouses. Which would have been a great segue to Mike!

S.H.: So, just to parse this out, essentially we weren’t even at arguing for equal pay or protection from sexual harassment yet?

I.C.: Yes! First someone had to get the justices to recognize that women were even persons deserving of equal protection under the law. And — in what gets to the central conundrum of the play — the question for feminists was whether to try to find that in the existing dusty old document or try to start over.

S.H.: So RBG was being brilliant and wily while taking the route that Thursday and Rosdely take at the end of the play, when they argue for keeping the Constitution while Schreck argues for throwing it out and starting from the ground up. RBG was squeezing the existing document as hard as she could. Just to achieve acknowledgement of women as human beings.

I.C.: I kept thinking about Hamilton, because how can you not? And how Hamilton gave this unearned gift to the founders by endowing them with the energy and creativity and diversity of hip-hop. It’s the Obama of musicals. But What the Constitution Means to Me is what comes after, which is thinking seriously about the very structures that the founders made and how those structures both reinforce our subjection and provide paths out of it.

S.H.: The Obama of Musicals. Do they give Pulitzers for single lines? Because I think you just won one.

I.C.: And just as you’re thinking, well, if we were to write a new Constitution, could our deeply balkanized and unequal society do any better without the NRA hijacking whatever comes next, the play actually goes there!

S.H.: Yes, and that’s new! They’ve bumped up the ferocity of the show’s final debate. There’s more intense, semi-extemporized back-and-forth between Schreck and the young debaters. It’s the first time I’ve heard that — very scary, very real — NRA argument from Thursday.

I.C.: That really illustrates how the structure of the play, which is also very risky, is brilliant — because it can absorb those changes as our debate gets more layered. Which is, by the way, how RBG sees the Constitution: as a living document that can get better as we hear from more people left out of it.

S.H.: The play’s simultaneous sophistication and solidity of construction and its breathing room, its elasticity, make the thing itself a metaphor for the Constitution.

I.C.: So here’s the RBG sound-bite I would have used:

I have a different originalist view. I count myself an originalist, too, but in a quite different way…. Equality was the motivating idea, it was the idea enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. But equality was not mentioned in the original Constitution. Why? Because the odious practice of slavery was retained. So the equality principle does not appear in the Constitution until after the Civil War, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted. The genius of the United States has been its growth capacity. Recall that “We, the People,” were once white, property-owning men. That concept, “We, the People,” has become ever more embracive. Native Americans were originally not part of “We, the People,” nor were people held in human bondage, women, newcomers to our shores. Today, “We, the People,” has a marvelous diversity, wholly absent in the beginning.

S.H.: You know, I could be wrong, but if I had to place a bet, I’d say Schreck knows about this quote and it’s actually too perfect. It lets someone else sum up her thesis instead of her.

I.C.: That’s a great point — and, by the way, I think this particular iteration of RBG’s view is more passive than she intends. Because of course the inclusion happens in movements through the agitation and organization and strategy of the people left out. And through art!

S.H.: It’s also exhilarating because it really places Schreck in a different kind of legacy. She comes from a line of survivors, of “covert resistors,” but she’s also, now, part of a legacy of interpreters and humane intellectual warriors. Women on a public stage making this argument again and again as many times as it takes.

I.C.: Yes, and what the play does that RBG wouldn’t do is ground its arguments in the messy realities of women’s bodies — the terror of a gray-area sexual encounter and women who didn’t protect their daughters from bad men and abortion storytelling and everything else.

S.H.: It’s the blunt fact of systemized dehumanization that really is the show’s central punch-in-the-stomach for me. Getting audiences to recognize — in the same way, perhaps, as RBG got the court to recognize — that the thing at the root here is so horribly simple. It’s all there in Schreck’s creepy-funny story from very early in the play, about her childhood fantasy of talking down a rapist: “And then you see me for the first time as a human being and you say, ‘You’re right! Oh my god, you are a human being!’”

I.C.: My debate counterpoint is that just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. Kate Manne’s theory of misogyny is not that the misogynist doesn’t recognize humanity, but that misogyny arises from anger at other humans (women) refusing to subordinate themselves in roles that benefit them. This play is also that refusal. It gets to our intimate relationships — the people we love and how they hurt us and fail us. And — this is less in the play but hinted in Mike’s story about failing to intervene in another dude’s toxicity — how we hurt others too and benefit from the existing hierarchies. It’s fucking personal.

S.H.: Excruciatingly personal.

I.C.:  I loved that. That, and the recurring Dirty Dancing references. I am pandered to just enough.

What the Constitution Means to Me is at the Hayes Theater through June 9.

Theater Review: Debating What the Constitution Means to Me