Let’s begin with a proposition. If the US Constitution doesn’t mean something to all of us, we’re even more doomed as a nation than we seem to be right now. You may oppose my proposition, of course, but good luck — just try to name another document that governs our lives more directly, more explicitly, than that battered and bruised 229-year-old paean to Enlightenment philosophy and jurisprudence. The fact that I, without fear, may publish this article attests to the preeminence of the Constitution in our daily lives. It’s the ultimate symbol of America’s quest for self-definition, for our common and inviolable values.
Wait — may I qualify my statement? Calling our Constitution battered and bruised rather understates its parlous condition. To be sure, Heidi Schreck tells us as much during her play-as-memoir What the Constitution Means to Me, running Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop through Oct. 28. The issue is not that it’s the world’s oldest working Constitution, per se (Norway’s is second oldest), but the troubling fact that it continues to enshrine the ideas of a group dead white men, many of them slave-owners, from the 18th century. These were the Founding Fathers, of course, land-owning lords atop a shining city on a hill. The vistas up there must have looked idyllic then, but down below, where the rest of us could be found both then and now, the view is considerably less grand. If you value intellectual honesty and integrity at all, then it’s impossible to argue that the worldview of the Founders is today, 2018, anything but wildly out of sync with our times. And anyway, ask yourself: Is America today a more perfect union? Is there domestic tranquility? Does our defense feel common, our general welfare promoted, our liberties blessed? Over a brisk 90 minutes, Schreck shows us the innumerable ways our Constitution, 27 times amended, has failed to meet its promise. Why should a brittle piece of parchment oversee our lives?
At age 15, Schreck raised the money for her college tuition by delivering speeches about the Constitution in contests across the nation. More than 30 years later, What the Constitution Means to Me begins by recreating one of those contests in an American Legion hall in Schreck’s hometown of Wenatchee
As Schreck tears through her narrative at warp speed, seeing actor Mike Iveson on Rachel Hauck’s set is striking. He’s white. He wears the uniform of conservatism: navy blue blazer, striped tie, pants, shoes. He’s there to play the men who timed her speeches, who refereed her contests. This is a memory play, but it fades halfway through: shedding the jacket and shirt, the t-shirt-wearing Iveson, as himself, tells us how the Constitution betrayed him, a gay man, in real life, much as it betrayed Schreck’s great-great grandmother, who died under mysterious circumstances, much as it betrayed many women in Schreck’s lineage, especially when they needed the Constitution to shield them from violent, incestuous men. All of this signals a hard-left turn into the metatheatrical — and we don’t know yet exactly where Schreck is heading. All we see is how the Constitution shortchanges us; how the Founders, even in death, remain affixed to the top of that shining city on a hill, bathed in privilege. Why not trash that out of touch, unenlightened, easily manipulated 229-year-old document? Far more than the bragging rights of Norway are at stake.
At the performance I attended, Thursday Williams, a senior at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, came on stage. A veteran debater, she recently participated in the Sonia and Celina Sotomayor Judicial Internship program. Williams and Schreck now debated, extemporaneously, not an amendment or clause of the Constitution as in the contests that Schreck won years ago, but now the very idea of the document itself. Until this point, Oliver Butler had staged the play with a loose, light touch. But now, when Iveson heads into the audience to beseech us and to implore us to whistle, to yell, to scream, to stomp our feet or even to boo as Williams and Schreck launch feverishly into a real debate, What the Constitution Means to Me becomes a rhetorical boxing match, the future of America laid out before us. A member of the audience — in this case, a Latina — was asked to name a winner. She chose Williams, who defended the position that America should keep its Constitution, an ironic ending. (Williams alternates in the role with Rosdely Ciprian, another real-life high school student.)
Prior to What the Constitution Means to Me, Iveson appeared in three pieces by Elevator Repair Service at New York Theatre Workshop — The Sound and The Fury, The Select/The Sun Also Rises, and Fondly, Collette Richland — plus Gatz, Arguendo and Measure for Measure (ERS at the Public Theater); Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf (ERS at Abrons Arts Center); and the Obie-winning A Beautiful Day in November on the Greatest of the Great Lakes (New Georges). He’s also been on Orange Is the New Black.
What the Constitution Means to Me runs through Oct. 28. For tickets, click here.
And now, 5 questions Mike Iveson has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
It’s about this piece — a friend asked me whether Heidi is acting or not when she is telling stories about her family. I love this question. Of course she’s acting, but it’s all also true. The slippery slope between autobiography and theatrical performance is always interesting. I mean, in life, in conversations, we are always performing when we are telling true stories about ourselves, and we are writing and editing on the spot when we do this, too. But this show is not The Moth or a TED talk. It’s some other creature.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
I honestly don’t think any of the questions about this show have been actually idiotic, but someone did want to know where we found my shoes. I mean, they are pretty amazing. They are sort of giant tissue boxes with laces that somehow counterintuitively communicate “practical.”
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Why I couldn’t see them, where they were sitting in the audience.
Who are you in the play — who is “some dude named Mike”? As an actor in Heidi’s story, how do you find something in the show that you can call your own?
At first, I am part of the frame of the show. I think it complicates everything to have a man onstage while Heidi is telling her stories, in which men often occupy the role of some type of perpetrator — chiefly the makers of laws, but not only those men. Later in the show, I become someone more than just the character I play at the beginning, but having me there for much of the time invites the audience to draw a parallel between the person I am playing in the beginning and the person I play toward the end. I get to do that work, too.
In 1990, 2000, 2008 and 2018, what did the Constitution mean to you?
1990: It seemed like kind of a joke though I was happy for the protection it provided me when I was getting arrested for civil disobedience.
2000: “Why aren’t Belle and Sebastian writing songs about this thing?”
2008: Sadly, I was often in Wales, where the US Constitution is an unacceptable conversation topic.
2018: Seems like we mostly hear about it from people obsessed with the Second Amendment, for Christ’s sake.
How do we make people give a damn about the Constitution?
Number one, naturally, is come see this show. Number two, I have been lucky enough to attend oral argument at the Supreme Court in DC a number of times and I can’t recommend it enough for basically every American. Much of the dialogue between the justices and the attorneys is hard to understand, but just being there is a wild reminder that laws are not mythic objects that fell from the sky — they are made in real time by real human people. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is essentially America’s greatest superhero right now, which is fantastic, and some of the other justices are every bit as unique and worthy of veneration.