Ten minutes into What the Constitution Means to Me, writer and performer Heidi Schreck is teaching the audience the word “penumbra”: “Here I am, standing in the light,” Schreck says from the front of the stage, “and there you are, sitting in the darkness. This space between us, this space right here of partial illumination, this shadowy space right here: This is the penumbra.”
It’s a word you’ll never forget after seeing this show. “Penumbra” is how Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas described the Ninth Amendment — the murkiest and least understood part of the constitution, even for Supreme Court Justices. (Justice Scalia once said he didn’t even remember studying it in school.) But it’s the amendment that leaves room to find new rights, that states that “just because a certain right is not listed in the constitution, it doesn’t mean you don’t have that right.”
Schreck’s Constitution — now streaming on Amazon Prime — is all about the penumbra. It’s about the shadow where the framers of our constitution left most of us—women, black people, Native Americans, immigrants. Mining the stories of three generations of women in her family and their “centuries of fucking inherited trauma,” the show tears the Constitution out of obscurity, and demands that it find room for all of us. She transforms a dusty monument of democracy into the “living, warm-blooded, steamy document” that affects all of our lives. Schreck has been performing this show for over a decade, and it has never felt like more essential viewing than it does right now.
The (nearly) one-woman show resurrects a real speech that Schreck gave when she was 15-years-old, in scholarship competitions around the country. Through the speech, she threads stories of her own family — her great-great-grandmother, who was ordered from Germany in a catalogue for $75; her grandmother, who endured a violent husband for decades; and her mother, who grew up in that violence before finally testifying against her stepfather. Punctuated with constitutional theory and the voice of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it would be easy to mistake the performance for improvisation, if it wasn’t woven together so seamlessly.
She frames the speech around the 14th Amendment — “a giant, supercharged force field, protecting all of your human rights” — and how our government, over the centuries, has chosen who gets to be inside that force field. “I want to emphasize that these amendments guaranteed equal rights only to men,” she says, channeling her 15-year-old self. “Black women were not given these rights. No women were given these rights. The question of Native American rights never even came up. Even Lincoln was trapped in a penumbra on that one.”
The performance is clearly bolstered by extensive, constitutional research, but it never feels dry or academic — which is just one of the reasons the play was nominated for a Best Play Tony and a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as earning Schreck a Tony nomination for acting. Through intimate windows into the lives of the women in her own family, she illustrates the real, human-scale harm of living amongst “laws that tell her she’s worthless.” She enumerates the ways that Justices have mined the Ninth amendment — the penumbra — to find protections for women’s bodies, black bodies, Native American bodies. But, perhaps more importantly, spells out the absurdity that most of our bodies are in the shadows of the Constitution.
About halfway through the show, Schreck gallops across the stage, ecstatically miming “log running.” It was her Grandma Bette’s “other job” — standing on a wooden raft, pushing logs down a raging river with a giant stick. “This is my favorite part of the show!” she hollers. Despite the incredible weight of the issues that Schreck takes on in this performance — and yes, you’ll probably cry at some point—you don’t walk away from it feeling heavy. It’s energizing, exciting. Schreck expertly navigates the tension in the room. She often uses her 15-year-old self, who’s obsessed with Patrick Swayze and is “terrifyingly turned on, all the time,” to shield the audience from the heaviness, just a little bit. And in its heaviest moments, she always gives the audience a moment to breathe.
None of that tension, and none of that relief, was lost on the screen. I saw the play three times before it was filmed, and Marielle Heller, who shot the performance, truly captured the air in the room. She took inspiration from taped comedy specials, which depend on the energy between the performer and the audience, much like Schreck’s Constitution, and it translates beautifully.
But perhaps there’s another reason that the show is as energizing as it is: 15-year-old Schreck truly loved this document, and the adult Schreck, who wrote the play, is genuinely interrogating it, looking for ways for it to serve all of us better than it does now. The performance ends with a debate with a young debater (played by Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams, alternately). The audience gets to vote between two possible futures: fixing the Constitution or tearing it up and starting fresh. Even in the filmed version, you get to choose your own adventure.
This year, a film like this feels like a balm. Our founding document may have left most of us in the penumbra 230 years ago, but Constitution urges us to imagine one that doesn’t — and there’s never been a more important time for that kind of imagination. As she says at the end of the show: “We all belong in the preamble.”
What the Constitution Means to Me premiered October 16th, 2020 on Amazon Prime Video