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Review: ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’

Heidi Schreck's bracing play at Portland Center Stage dives smartly and entertainingly into the serious issues of the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. Constitution.

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Rebecca Lingafelter and Alabaster Richard in Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Heidi Schreck has crafted What the Constitution Means to Me as the most generous sort of self-applied invitation. It’s generous in that she has embued it with authenticity, easing discomfort with humor that shifts skillfully into grappling vulnerably with deeper questions. And the invitation? To interrogate the Constitution, to really consider what it means, to you and to others. 

Schreck offers an invitation, not a civics lesson as we would typically conceive of it, though you might miss that from the title. Originally from Wenatchee, Washington, the playwright literally cast her actual self in the central role, though she is now played by others (an excellent Rebecca Lingafelter assumes the role at Portland Center Stage), as the play has justly inspired productions all over the country.  It begins with Schreck reflecting on her experiences as a self-described horny 15-year-old, employing oddly steamy metaphors to debate about the merits of the United States Constitution in American Legion events across the country as a means of paying her way through the University of Oregon. She recalls her genuine youthful enthusiasm for our founding document; it’s the admiration of a true believer, and not a terrible place for a 15-year-old to start.

But Schreck was in her 40s when she created this play, and the journey of the play reflects her accepting her own invitation—the one she is offering us as audience members—to really consider what the Constitution means to her with adult awareness, from her social location as a woman whose concerns aren’t reflected well or at all in its construction. Her reflection doesn’t stop there. She considers other women in her line, who suffered abuse and violence without the benefit of protection that the law could afford, and also considers related concerns for those who lack the privileges that she enjoys as a cisgender, nondisabled white woman. 

If that all sounds academic, it doesn’t actually play that way.  Schreck and her collaborators—including the actor who now plays her, and also a roving array of cast members, as I’ll explain—model an important practice with humor and self-awareness that wins you over and guides you toward your own questions.  She treats the question of what the Constitution means to her, and to her cast, and to each audience member and, indeed, each citizen, as a matter of vital importance.  She demonstrates reasons to care, and to engage.

Rebecca Lingafelter and Andrés Alcalá in "What the Constitution Means to Me." Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Rebecca Lingafelter and Andrés Alcalá in “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Schreck, as a youth, considered attending law school herself—and I say it’s a good thing she didn’t. Law school largely talks people out of the good questions she is raising here, and drains people of the inclination to interrogate the meaning of the Constitution and laws in a way that puts themselves into the story as she is doing here. It was a confusing aspect of law school for me, and I watch it flummox students year after year. Those of us with the most agency are trained to believe and to communicate that the public should just trust us to tell them what they need to know.

That’s not Schreck’s approach, nor is it the approach of this play. She takes us on the journey of her own questions, of how the law intersects with her own history, of the ways she has been inspired and her noticing over time of gaps in the Constitution’s protections, big ones. Her musings reflect years of research, including listening to hours of Supreme Court arguments. She plays clips of some of those arguments in which the justices sound clueless—and she has the capacity to notice. Very unlawyerly—and also very astute.

She invites a male actor on stage to play a representative of the American Legion, then notes in time that actually she invited him to be a nontoxic male presence, then invites the actor (here, Andrés Alcalá) to tell some of his own story, including conflicts between how he presents and who he sees himself to be.  It’s a peeling back of layers that we also experience of Schreck’s character, as Lingafelter-as-Schreck puts on her high school persona, then peels back parts of her own history, then becomes Lingafelter and continues her musing. It’s a sly way of suggesting that Schreck really means to invite us as ourselves to engage in this sort of practice, and that it might take some work to reckon with what we are bringing into the inquiry. We can’t do it unless we are willing to show up.

Sponsor

Oregon Cultural Trust

In the play’s final moments, Schreck invites a young student onstage so that the two of them can debate whether to abolish the Constitution or keep it. As in the original productions, two teenagers alternate the roles (I saw the delighful Alabaster CK Richard, a student at Cleveland High School, and others will see Divine Crane from Aloha High School), and they and Schreck practice arguing both sides of the arguments over the course of the run. 

Alabaster Richard, as a student, debates whether to keep or abolish the Constitution. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Alabaster Richard, as a student, debates whether to keep or abolish the Constitution. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

They are asking the big questions, and the young cast members are not at all patronized. The invitation is genuine, and feels important. Again, Schreck self-applies the invitation she extends to us: Engage the big questions, and be in dialogue with others, including young people and others who don’t tend to be consulted. It’s all directly counter to the prevailing idea that somehow only a few elites have any basis for grappling with the foundational questions of our democracy. 

I’ve argued for quite a while (mostly without much visible success) that the legal system ought to function in a way that equips the public to hold the most powerful actors accountable, rather than essentially expecting them to trust us. This smart production of Schreck’s resonant play (a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) starts from the assumption that that is possible, and equips us to engage with constitutional questions as though our opinions matter.  More than ever, our democracy may depend on that—all the more reason to make time for “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

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