The 14th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, ratified on July 9, 1868, establishes that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.” More than a century and a half after it was ratified, it remains a frequent topic of conversation as a monomaniacal president attempts to circumvent it on a near-weekly basis.
It’s also the centerpiece of Heidi Schreck’s singular play What the Constitution Means to Me, which makes its D.C. debut at the Kennedy Center after taking New York by storm last season. (A scheduled April run at Woolly Mammoth was canceled after the play transferred to Broadway.) While a play about the Constitution seems tailor-made for Washington audiences, what Schreck has created transcends the political machinations that consume “this town” and instead shows us how our governing document works on a viscerally personal level.
The play speaks specifically to this time in American history, but as Schreck soon shows audiences, the Constitution has consumed and confused scholars and ordinary citizens for as long as it has existed. Its framing device comes from Schreck’s past as a champion student speaker who spent her high school years touring American Legion halls and discussing what the Constitution meant to her in exchange for college scholarship money. She begins by retelling stories from those days, supplementing them with historical details and lessons she’s learned later in life. Her initial take, that the Constitution is like a bubbling crucible that blends disparate ingredients into a powerful potion, eventually gives way to a clearer thought, that, like most humans, the Constitution contains multitudes.
It’s the human elements that make Schreck’s play so memorable. As she wends through the amendments, she explains how they touched her life and proceeds to list the ways the Constitution has and continues to exclude everyone who is not a white, land-owning man. At times, she supplements it with excerpts from Supreme Court arguments, including an Antonin Scalia grumble about the meaning of the word “shall.” (In an expectedly D.C. moment, audience members whooped and cheered when Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s voice came over the speakers.)
At times, these insights into Schreck’s life take the play in a darker direction than one would expect. The women in Schreck’s family have not had easy lives and hearing her recount their traumas and the ways in which the laws of America abetted those traumas is difficult. There is humor to be found, though, first in the reactions of Mike Iveson, who plays the grumpy American Legion leader who oversees the contest. In lighter, improvised moments, Schreck also adds in humor, whether she’s discussing the woes of perimenopause or connecting with an audience member who hails from her small Washington hometown.
In order for anyone to keep believing in this complicated governing document, there needs to be an element of hope. Schreck finds it in Rosdely Ciprian, a New York high school student who shares her passion for debating the Constitution. Hearing a young person verbalize the importance of this imperfect document reminds the audience that there’s still a reason to believe in this greatly flawed nation. It’s not yet time to tear everything down and start over, but it is worthwhile to spend some quality time engaging with the Constitution, whether you’re listening to Schreck onstage or reading the actual words of the document. Thankfully, each performance comes with a parting gift: a pocket Constitution that allows audience members to engage with the show’s central beliefs after the curtain falls.
To Sept. 22 at 2700 F St. NW. $49–$169. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.