What the Constitution means to Broadway

Thursday, September 5, 2019 - 2:43pm

Heidi Schreck

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Recently in Birmingham, Alabama, as the byproduct of a near-total abortion ban, Planned Parenthood announced they will build new women’s facilities. The aforementioned ban is the most restrictive legislature surrounding abortion in the country and threatens a woman’s constitutional right to free choices regarding her body under Roe v. Wade. 

Many amendments to the US Constituion, much like the 14th, are of great interest to Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony nominee Heidi Schreck, an outspoken benefactor of the aforementioned Supreme Court case. Schreck is the author and lead actress of Broadway’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a play about her teenage years competing in constitutional debate contests throughout the United States to pay for her college tuition. The play, which I saw on the eve of the 73rd Tony Awards, pulses with bright humor, aches with the reality of choice and asks pertinent questions about the state of our nation. Schreck tells the tale of the not-so-secret abortion she had in her early 20s and the domestic abuse to which generations of matriarchs in her family were subjected. She relates her stories to her adolescent adoration of the Constitution and her opinions of the document today. As a liberal theatremaker, fierce feminist and advocate for women and minorities performing on Broadway, Schreck is preaching to the choir. 

The audience roared with applause as Schreck offered opinions about the document. I felt the cohesive swell of agreeance in the air. I bonded with those around me, sharing adoration for Schreck’s bravery and astute polemic against America’s foundational text. It was almost perfect. But something was missing. 

In the seats around me sat attentive Democrats, feisty liberals and people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Most of my fellow audience-mates probably post memes about missing former President Obama, and have attended recent women’s marches and gay pride parades. The point Schreck was making –– that our current constitution, and our current government, does not support women and minorities, or many of us at all –– was being relayed to a group of people who already believe this as fact. Everyone walked out of the theatre emotionally stimulated and invigorated to make change, but with the same opinions they had held two hours prior: Criminalizing abortion is wrong, anyone who wants a wedding cake should get a wedding cake and we shouldn’t build a wall. I wondered, where are the senators from Alabama? Where are the people who voted Donald Trump into office? Where are the strict constitutionalists?

Not in the Helen Hayes Theatre, or many Broadway houses at all, that’s for sure. I adore this play so much that I wished everyone in our country could see it. I know realistically that this won’t happen, because it is difficult to put ourselves in positions where our opinions will be challenged uncomfortably. I purchased my ticket knowing I’d be invited into Schreck’s world to be shaken, yes, and emotional, sure, but also to feel safe and warm, supported and heard. When Broadway plays get political, liberal ideology fills the theatre.  

Schreck reminded the audience that women and minorities are unacknowledged in the document until page 34, and even then, the document does not protect them in the many ways Schreck believes it should. Schreck makes a terrific case for at least a total rewrite of the document when she says “We all belong in the Preamble.” Schreck’s play succeeds, in my opinion, flawlessly. So it’s not that Schreck’s piece feels without purpose –– she does have a purpose, even if it’s only to affirm and invigorate the liberal theatre-goers who agree with her. I just couldn’t help but recognize that the people who truly need to hear these messages and see this play will never seek it out on their own.

If you were pro-lifer, a strict constitutionalist or an extreme republican, perhaps you wouldn’t feel lifted up and celebrated like I did. Perhaps you’d feel sheepish, apologetic, embarrassed –– and maybe, you’d reconsider how you felt prior to walking into the theatre. Perhaps any argument that states that same sex couples shouldn’t have rights, or that abortions should be illegal and women shouldn’t have control over their reproductive health would seem suddenly dismal and incoherent, perhaps not. Either way, theatre that does social justice work and changes people’s minds is sensical and exciting. But how do we get people attentive and ready who vehemently oppose virtually everything they’re about to see? It isn’t not about tailoring advertisements or utilizing marketing to entice a specific demographic into the seats, but sparking something that incentivizes them to head to the box office, to see the other side of the argument. Broadway can be a part in dismantling the painful reality we’re surrendering to everyday, because in times of crippling polarization we survive only through empathy.