‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ explores the future

‘The Constitution is a living document,” Heidi Schreck argues as a teenager. “That is what is so beautiful about it. It is a living, warm-blooded, steamy document.”

As an adult, as a woman, she asks with a deeper understanding, what world could we imagine if that could be true — if it could be true for her, and for everyone. Gaps in the founding structure of the country can have immediate force in daily life, in three generations of her own family.

Our bodies, our bodies, had been left out of this Constitution from the beginning,” she says in her Tony nominated and Pulitzer Prize finalist play, What the Constitution Means to Me, coming to the Berkshires after its Broadway Run.

WAM Theatre will bring her show May 18 to June 3, in partnership with Berkshire Theatre Group — one of the first theaters in the country to get the rights. For Kristen Van Ginhoven, artistic director of WAM Theatre it comes riding a tide of excitement.

“Everyone in the theater knew about the play,” said Kristen Van Ginhoven, who will direct the play. “It has been so popular … but the rights have not been available while the play has been running on Broadway.”

‘Our bodies, our bodies, had been left out of this Constitution from the beginning.’ — Heidi Schreck

Van Ginhoven finds the play deeply timely, at a time when rights for Women, LGBTQ and Trans folk, BIPOC folk are facing new and increasing challenges and violence against them has only intensified the pandemic.

Associate director Talia Kingston set out to hear when the rights became available, Van Ginhoven said, and when the possibility opened last fall, WAM applied within the first 15 minutes. When Van Ginhoven got in touch with Berkshire Theatre Group, artistic director Kate Maguire responded immediately.

“I phoned her it and said, ‘so, would you like to co-produce What the Constitution Means to Me?’ “ VanGinhoven said, laughing, “And she said ‘yup — we’ll work out the details later!’ It was such a no-brainer. … So we were one of the first to get the rights, but it’s being done everywhere now.”

Zurie Adams speaks at a podium with serious confidence in WAM Theatre's production of What the Constitution Means to Me. Press photo courtesy of WAM Theatre
Photo by David Dashiell

Zurie Adams speaks at a podium with serious confidence in WAM Theatre's production of What the Constitution Means to Me. Press photo courtesy of WAM Theatre

Two-time Tony Award nominated Broadway actor Kate Baldwin, known here from many performances on the Berkshire Theatre Group stage, will take the role of Heidi, herself, and awardwinning Berkshire actor Jay Sefton will join her as the Legionnaire.

Schreck begins the story in her own past. As a teenager, she raised money for college by competing in Constitutional debates at American Legion Halls, Van Ginhoven says, and looking back as a woman, she began to reckon with the documents strengths — and it’s challenges.

‘There are 4500 words in the constitution, 27 amendments, and the word ‘woman’ is never once mentioned. Not once.’ — Kristen Van Ginhoven

In the play, she becomes increasingly aware that a document she has spent years defending has never included her. Some of what it leaves out becomes adamantly clear, Van Ginhoven said, as soon as she looks for it.

“There are 4500 words in the constitution, 27 amendments, and the word ‘woman’ is never once mentioned. Not once,” she said. “… We’re completely erased from it.”

As Schreck examines the structures that have defined democracy in this country for 250 years, the play becomes a deeply personal story of family survival through generations of trauma — and a fierce response to events in the daily headlines — and a new debate on how to build for the future.

As they re-create Heidi’s teenage and adult debates, the play brings in real debators from rising generations. From the Berkshires, WAM has cast Zurie Adams, a passionate activist and a senior theater major and about to graduate from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and an alternate debator, Izzy Brown, a Pittsfield high school student and a passionate and fierce activist in their own right.

‘That’s the depressing and the astonishing thing about the play … It always seemed that the thing she was talking about was what was going on in the news that day.’ — Kristen Van ginhoven

The play’s immediacy keeps growing, Van Ginhoven said. With every new development in the debates surrounding abortion rights and the Supreme Court, the message deepens. Schreck has given the actors and director space to respond to the rapid changes in national debates and people’s everyday lives. The story adapts to the shifting present.

“That’s the depressing and the astonishing thing about the play,” Van Ginhoven said — “I think it will remain timely for awhile. And (Schreck) has said that in interviews that no matter what has been going on over the last few years of performing it, it always seemed prescient.

“It always seemed that the thing she was talking about was what was going on in the news that day. Because it captures the last 250 years of history, and what’s going on about women’s rights and women’s reproductive health is just ongoing.”

Kate Baldwin debates as Heidi Schreck in WAM Theatre's production of What the Constitution Means to Me. Press photo courtesy of WAM Theatre
Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware

Kate Baldwin debates as Heidi Schreck in WAM Theatre's production of What the Constitution Means to Me. Press photo courtesy of WAM Theatre

In the opening, through her teenage debates, Schreck shows her longtime fascination with the the Constitution’s strengths — the ways a document written 200 years ago has survived and adapted far beyond the future the founders could see.

The original writers recognized a living document’s need to grow, she argues in the play, and they created room for change: “Thomas Jefferson himself said we should draft a new Constitution for every generation.”

She focuses here on the 9th and 14th amendments — expansive, far-sighted language. The young Heidi defines the 9th amendment with fascination, “the most magical and mysterious amendment of them all,” arguing that rights exist beyond the words on the paper — naming some rights does not deny that others exist.

“… this space of partial illumination, this shadowy space right here: This is a penumbra.

She sees the writer standing in a vast unmarked space — creating room to move and breathe the unknowable time ahead, and allowing potential for human connection.

‘When she encountered amendment 9 as a teenager, she fell in love with it, because it was the invitation to be involved.’ — Kristen Van Ginhoven

WAM Theatre and the Elizabeth Freeman Center hold an awareness event together. Press photo courtesy of WAM
WAM Theatre

WAM Theatre and the Elizabeth Freeman Center hold an awareness event together. Press photo courtesy of WAM

These amendments have both come into play, she says, to pass laws that have upheld Civil Rights and women’s rights, including a women’s rights to choose what happens to her own body and mind.

“When she encountered amendment 9 as a teenager, she fell in love with it, because it was the invitation to be involved,” Van Ginhoven said, recalling a conversation Schreck held at the 92nd Street Y with a constitutional scholar.

The 14th amendment affirms that every person born here is a citizen, that states cannot take away rights the federal government has given, and that every person has a right to equal protection under the law. … Schreck acknowledges vital gaps here, and at the same time vital tools for ensuring freedom.

These amendments have both come into play to pass laws that have upheld Civil Rights and women’s rights, including a women’s rights to choose.

The 14th amendment has played a role in many arguments for Civil Rights and women’s rights, Van Ginhoven agreed. And still it has not always protected Native peoples, immigrants and many more.

When the Constitution says ‘every person is guaranteed this right,’ every person should be included, she said — people of color, women, immigrants, people of all abilities and identities and orientations — and in practice, many people very often are not.

In the play, Schreck grapples with the reality that the Constitution is a document drafted by a group of White men, VanGinhoven said — the same men who were talking about equality as a central ethical principal when they all had enslaved people working on their plantations and in their houses.

And as the play deepens, Schreck grapples in increasing intensity with the vulnerability people face when they know the law doesn’t protect them.

Zurie Adams and Kate Baldwin sit back to back in WAM Theatre's production of What the Constitution Means to Me. Press photo courtesy of WAM Theatre
Photo by David Dashiell

Zurie Adams and Kate Baldwin sit back to back in WAM Theatre's production of What the Constitution Means to Me. Press photo courtesy of WAM Theatre

Schreck grapples in increasing intensity with the vulnerability people face when they know the law doesn’t protect them.

So what I’m trying to understand now,” the adult Heidi asks in the play, “is … What does it mean if this document offers no protection against the violence of men?

She gives a bleak and clear accounting of the violence she sees on the rise in the U.S., first in numbers.

“Since the year 2000, more American women have been killed by their male partners than Americans have died in the war on terror — including 9/11. That is not the number of women who have been killed by men in this country; that is only the number of women who have been killed by the men who supposedly love them.”

And then she underscores her statistics with real lived experiences. Three generations of her family have known what that violence means — up close. Daily. Her mother and her aunt have survived and had the courage to break the cycle before her generation.

‘Since the year 2000, more American women have been killed by their male partners than Americans have died in the war on terror — including 9/11.’ — Heidi Schreck

WAM too is reckoning with the lived experiences of people the Constitution fails to protect. They have been talking with Janice Broderick, executive director of the Elizabeth Freeman Center, Van Ginhoven said, because the Elizabeth Freeman Center will receive a share of the proceeds from these performances.

“She has shared many times the increase in domestic violence calls that Elizabeth Freeman has been receiving over the past few years,” VanGinhoven said — “especially during the pandemic, home was not a safe place for so many people.”

Berkshire Theatre Group and WAM will make a donation to the Elizabeth Freeman Center, and they will also lead a drive to gather household items, because families will so often come to them with nothing. They have had to leave everything behind, to be safe.

“Four women are murdered every day in this country by a male partner,” adult Heidi says in the play. “One in four girls will be sexually abused before they turn eighteen. One in four women will be raped by the time they are my age now. And ten million American women live in violent households.

“My mom lived in a house like this. So did my Grandma Bea.”

‘Especially during the pandemic, home was not a safe place for so many people.’ — Kristen VanGinhoven

Her younger self asks why her grandmother did not leave a violent and abusive man and protect her mother and her aunt, and their siblings. She knows her grandmother as strong, powerful, viscerally and actively loving.

“I think as a middle-aged woman she is still grappling with that,” Van Ginhoven said, “and by (writing and performing) the play and telling the story, and including the audience in the dialog, she comes to an answer.

For anyone facing daily life-threatening violence, she said, leaving is a hard and complex process. Often the person under threat has few resources and no safe place to go. And making the attempt to leave the abuser can be deadly.

“… I see part one of the play as (Schreck) grappling with that,” Van Ginhoven said, “and coming to some kind of healing with her past so that she can step into the future.”

‘We are in a moment where we cannot rely on the Supreme court to be making decisions in the best interests of the country.’ — Kristen VanGinhoven

Toward the end, the play moves into a new active rhythm, as Schreck and her new generation of debators come together to consider what real change can look like. She sees high stakes, Van Ginhoven recalled from the talk at the 92nd Street Y.

“We are in a moment where we cannot rely on the Supreme court to be making decisions in the best interests of the country,” VanGinhoven said, “and so the state supreme courts have to step up.”

But the people are ultimately supposed to be the strongest voice.

“We are able to create what our future is — we can’t forget that.”

Even in this year of constant challenges and debates, she has seen a rising strength in voices rising, as people defend a woman’s right to care for and protect her own body, even in states where she might not have expected it.

“The country does not want this,” she said. “We have had the midterms, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan. We have had proof over the last year that when push comes to shove, people do not want to inhibit a women’s right to choose.”

‘I think about my own journey of activism … this recognition that nothing changes without us becoming active in the civic world.’ — Kristen VanGinhoven

Preparing for the play has led Van Ginhoven into new research, she said, and has pushed her to think about the U.S.’s founding documents, and about engaging with community structures on every level , with new eyes.

“We have one actor who auditioned for the debator,” she said, “…. who is Chinese and wants to become American, and she is passionate about the play because we have a constitution — we have a document that gives people rights — we have a democracy — and that was more than she has grown up with.”

“… It’s eye-opening and potent reminder — yes (the Constitution) is flawed, it’s supremely flawed, but we’re lucky to have it.”

‘I love intellectual debate, and I love putting on plays that feel like an experience.’ — Kristen VanGinhoven

She has been thinking with a new sense of expansiveness about what the U.S. Constitution says — and could say — as the plays debate invites her to. With a few exceptions, she said, the U.S. Constitution is framed around negative rights, defining what the government can’t take away. But other countries have written constitutions based on positive rights — the right to vote, the right to an education, the right to food, medical care, housing or a job.

“I think about my own journey of activism,” she said, “and as a Canadian who has become also an American citizen, and I think about how my whole WAM journey has led to being part of telling this story — of this recognition that nothing changes without us becoming active in the civic world — how civic engagement and voting and advocating for our rights is the only way things will change.

“And I feel it, there’s an apathy around that because of a lack of faith in our government and in our systems. It’s like … ’Why bother, Everything is so messed up.’ And this play has provided me hope that there is value in the American democracy and there is value in civic engagement.”

Above all, she feels a call to action.

“I love intellectual debate, and I love putting on plays that feel like an experience, when the audience leans forward in their seats and is invested in the outcome.”

This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer — my thanks to editor Fred Daley.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

If you’d like to see the website grow, you can join me for a few dollars a month, enough for a cup of coffee and a cider doughnut. Members get access to extra stories and multimedia, itineraries a bookmark tool. Let me know what you're looking for, and we’ll explore together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

BTW Berkshires
Shares