Last weekend I went to Washington D.C. and saw the show What the Constitution Means to Me. That’s where I got this pocket copy of the Constitution of the United States of America, which I have been carrying around. The show was amazing, funny and sad, and thought provoking.
The play is kind of a stand-up routine, and kind of a biographical monologue, and kind of a lecture on political philosophy, and kind of a lot more. It ties in playwright Heidi Schreck‘s experience debating the Constitution in high school with the further evolution of her thinking about it, in light of later life experience and developments in jurisprudence.
Using the vehicle of a recreation of her high school debates, Schreck specifically discusses the 9th amendment, and section 1 of the 14th amendment. The 9th amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, and basically says that the Constitution is not making claims about the limits of anyone’s rights; it’s not saying, “we’ve listed these rights, and that’s all you get.” So there is room in the future to define more rights of the people and limitations of the government in infringing upon them.
The 14th amendment was part of the Reconstruction era, and an important followup to the 13th amendment which banned slavery. Section 1 of the 14th amendment is clarifying that all States within the Union are bound to the laws of the United States; it is explicitly binding the States to the Federal system which is the genius of the government of the United States. For in the U.S., you are a citizen both of the State in which you reside and of the United States as a whole. And the government of your State of residence cannot deny you rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.
That is why a gay couple can get married today, even in a State where the government in charge would like to deny them that right. And that is why, in my opinion, secession or splitting the country up would be a terrible, terrible idea. It would leave too many disadvantaged people without essential legal protection. I’ve thought about that before, and this play helped fix that belief in my mind.
Now Schreck is mainly concerned with the issues of reproductive rights and of violence against women. In discussing this, she pulls her family history into the narrative, going back to her mother’s experience growing up in a troubled household. As she relates this to the story of women’s rights under constitutional law, a depressing picture emerges in which women are underprivileged, lower-class citizens. Just consider that women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920.
The stark truth is that the law is in the hands of those who interpret it and enforce it, and these tend not to be women. Schreck’s disappointment at this state of affairs becomes the overarching theme of her play. And this raises some compelling questions – is the Constitution still working? Is it reformable? The show shifts formats at the end to address these questions in a fun and exciting way.
If you feel that the Constitution doesn’t work for you, well, you may well be in the majority, considering that many people today have tuned out of the democratic process. I mean, technically our President should be a dotted outline, considering how many people didn’t vote in 2016. But if the government is so corrupt or ineffective, does that really mean we should give up on it?
Heidi Schreck’s play doesn’t answer that question for you, but it will make you think about it. It sure did for me, and I’m glad I got a chance to see it. I hope you will, too. It is probably too late to see it in D.C., but it should be touring in numerous American cities next year.