When she was 15 years old, Heidi Schreck stood in front of audiences and spoke passionately about the United States Constitution in competitions at American Legion Halls, earning enough prize money from doing so to pay for college. Now, with What the Constitution Means to Me, she is once again passionately speaking about the document that has (for better or worse) shaped the country—this time eight performances a week on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre and from a very different point of view.
Written by Schreck (who earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance and for Best Play) and directed by Oliver Butler, Constitution finds Schreck first resurrecting the 15-year-old she once was, in love with the Constitution, and then revealing the ways in which it and the nation have let down its citizens, including the matriarchs in Schreck’s own family.
It’s a deeply personal play that takes a certain fearlessness to perform, but it’s also a story for and about America. “The play is about a history of inherited trauma, how do we as individuals and as a country face and work through inherited trauma?” asks Schreck. “How do we take this violent, hypocritical beginning, in which people had very lofty goals—how do we move from that beginning to embrace the ideals that the country set out for itself?”
These are questions not only asked in the show, but in today’s America, too, and whatever is being discussed in the news impacts the performance audiences see. “Sometimes the show is very angry because I’m pissed off that day by something that happened [in the country],” admits Schreck. “Sometimes I have a harder time controlling my grief around some of the things in the play, and on any given day I might feel more or less hopeful.”
Schreck is not alone onstage. She is joined by Mike Iveson, and New York City high school students Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams, who alternate nights and emerge at the end to debate Schreck on whether America should keep or abolish the Constitution. Their voices are vital to the production.
“I’m a middle-aged, cis, white woman,” Schreck says. “I think I have a crucial story to tell, but I also want to model moving aside and opening the door to the future for people younger than me and for people who have different stories than I do.”
Perhaps thanks to this, audience members across age, gender, race, and backgrounds have come to Schreck to share their own stories. “It continues to be healing for me [too],” says Schreck. “Just the act of doing it, night after night—I feel like a healthier, stronger person than when I started doing the show.”