What the Constitution Means to ME!

Why did I think this play was going to be funny? It’s not. Distressing would be more like it. But I’m not complaining. Sometimes it’s better to have painful truths sneak up on you. For if you knew they were going to confront you head on, you might decide to make take strategic turn before the facts smack you in the face.

What facts?

I was stunned by the string of statistics. But don’t remember them all. But here are a couple of examples:

In the U.S. more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends.

More women have been killed by husbands or boyfriends since 9/11 than all the Americans killed by the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One in four women in the U.S. will be raped at some point in her life. (Yikes! That one truly floored me.)

Perhaps the name of the play should have been “What the Constitution Means to Me, too!” Unfortunately, this is not a joking matter. The litany of statistics delineating crimes against women is astonishing. Shocking. Disturbing and distressing

Heidi Shreck (the playwright) represented by Maria Dizzia, who played her at the Taper Forum performance we attended, stands before the audience as her 47-year-old self, sometimes channeling her 15-year-old self, and explores how her attitude towards the Constitution of the United States has changed over the years. (How many of us, as 15-year olds thought twice about the Constitution?)

Shreck’s early “passion” for the Constitution was sparked by The American Legion’s Oratorical Contest, which has been awarding cash prizes to high school students since 1938. Who knew? Well, Heidi Schreck’s mother sure knew. Heidi earned her college tuition winning this prize, apparently on more than one occasion.

At some point along the way, Shreck fell out of the love the Constitution. Her personal history is one good reason:

A great grandmother who was lured from New England to the Pacific Northwest to become a mail-order bride. A grandmother who was mercilessly beaten by her husband. A mother who bravely stood up to the abusive father who had raped (and impregnated) her older sister. A younger self who made an hours long journey to escape the “abortion-free” zone where she lived.

These women, and millions like them—all women, all minorities, in fact—have not been protected in our Constitution, the Government it establishes, or the Courts that guide that Government. Schreck explains that our founding document was constructed to protect the rights of not “all men” but of all rich white men. Landowners. That left out poor white men (those who worked for the rich white men), Native Americans, slaves, immigrants (the Chinese being an outstanding example, barred from becoming citizens for decades ). And all women.

At key points in the play, we in the audience hear actual recordings of Supreme Court deliberations as the Justices debate… a woman’s right to make the most personal and private of all decision (Griswold v Connecticut, 1965… birth control) and Roe v Wade 1973 (abortion).

Over the course of 100 minutes (with no intermission) we learn how Supreme Court decisions have been jiggered and re-jiggered, to suit the predilections of those sworn to interpret the law…and the Constitution… impartially.

We learn that here in the United States we have a negative constitution—one that stipulates things the government cannot do, rights than cannot be taken away, whereas other newer constitutions are formulated as positive documents—delineating things the government is obligated to do for its citizens (provide healthcare, for example).

And we learn about the ambiguity of the Ninth Amendment, which states that a right can exist, even if it is not explicitly stated.

If all this sounds dry (it isn’t) and depressing (it kind of is), this is definitely not a play where the audience will be left snoozing. Because the audience is required to become involved. Schreck has added a coda: a real (sort of) debate where she—the now 47-year-old debates with a real 15-year-old (an exemplar of her younger self). The question: Should we keep the Constitution of the United States of America as is—as written by the Founding Fathers, with the thirty-three amendments that have been tacked onto it over the years? (Booklets that set forth the entire text are handed out to everyone in the audience.) Or should we call a new Constitutional Convention so we can ditch what we have and formulate a more up-to-date, less problematic version.

Following standard debate protocols, and following the format of the traditional VFW event, the two participants present their cases (they randomly switch their pro/con positions from one performance to the next). A member of the audience is selected as judge.

At the performance we attended, Shreck argued that our Constitution should be replaced with a new one. Her 15-year old opponent (an articulate and impressive young debater) argued for keeping it. The woman invited to be judge, opted for keeping it. And the show ended to a roar of applause.

That was three days ago. And I have to say that since then, I have been thinking about the Constitution more than I have since my high school “Problems of Democracy” class. Or maybe, ever.

From time to time, sure, I’ve heard or read suggestions the Constitution needs fixing. Its deficiencies are cited by various experts and commentators who have, of course, their own agendas. Whatever the topic—religion; guns; birth control; abortion; citizenship; immigration; the structure of the Federal Government, its funding, its functions and obligations, its relationship to the citizenry and to the states—open any of these topics to debate, and you’ve opened Pandora’s box. How about a discussion of how best to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

No doubt other countries have Constitutions that are more in line with what I would like our Constitution to be. But I live here. And now. Imagine, in today’s political climate, a Constitutional Convention. Good grief! When the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice and a Presidential phone call can launch months’ of accusations, counter-accusations, name-calling, and nastiness all around, why would we want to subject ourselves to such a circus? Or risk the outcome?

Meanwhile, we have the Supreme Court in Washington to guide, guard, and interpret the Constitution—its symbol, a figure (female, of course) holding a sword and a set of scales. The country was nearly 200 years old before there was a woman appointed to the Court (Sandra Day O’Connor, 1981). Currently, there are three: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Considering the nation’s track record when it comes to common sense, fair play, and true respect for individuality, and individual rights, and the fact that the Court has been dominated by men since the beginning, I was pleased to hear the third and final audio clip used to close Heidi Schreck’s thought provoking play.

It was the voice of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.”

I’m with the Notorious RBG. May she live forever!