Thursday, June 14, 2018

what the Constitution means to Heidi Schreck

I went to this staged program at the Berkeley Rep theater called What the Constitution Means To Me, featuring Heidi Schreck, who's a dramatist and actor. It was in their small theater and lasted 90 minutes. Meanwhile, the large theater was doing Angels in America, so that audience was there all night.

I'm not exactly sure what the thing I saw was. It's not a play and it's not a lecture, but something in between. Schreck, who's in her 40s, comes onstage and explains that when she was 15, she earned enough money to pay for her college education from the honorariums she got as one of a set of students going around to American Legion posts giving talks on the titular topic. She attempts to reconstruct her talk - her mother threw the original text away - with the help of a male actor friend who plays the Legionnaire introducer, interspersing it with stories in her adult voice of dramas in her own and her female ancestors' lives. At the end, she brings on a real-life local 15-year-old high school debater and they hold a quick and reportedly unrehearsed debate on the question of whether the Constitution should be dumped and replaced, with audience applause deciding the question. ("No" won.)

So what does she say? Her reconstruction of her teenage speech is a lot of teenage fluff, but her stories are about women's citizenship and civil rights. Her own story is about her abortion at an early age - not the procedure itself, but deciding she needed it and arranging to get it. She ties this through the Griswold and Roe decisions to the 9th and 14th Amendments. Then she tells a story of her mother as a girl and her siblings being abused by their stepfather, and how her grandmother, though a strong woman, accepted this and her own abuse, and what that says about the evolution of women's civil rights. Her great-grandmother was imported without her volition as a bride on the northwest frontier in the late 19th century, and died young in an asylum, reportedly mentally ill, and what does that story tell? That women, and blacks, and Amerinds, were - often explicitly - excluded from the Constitution in earlier days is emphasized, but rather than condemning it for that (except in the explicit debate), she takes a Barbara Jordan position of noting how the Constitution's coverage has grown.

So there was a lot of meat here, but even though we each found on our theater seat an ACLU-sponsored pocket Constitution with space at the end to write our own thoughts, I find it a little hard to say what the Constitution means to me in those terms. What I can say is broader. It's that a Constitution, however noble its phrasing and aspirations, means something only in terms of the respect that its people and government give it. The Soviet Union had a constitution that reads very well, but its statements of rights meant nothing. To describe the US Constitution as intended to preserve rich white men's rights is historically illuminating, but it's incomplete unless we understand what it's preserving them from, and the aspirations that it embodied - aspirations that enabled the Constitution easily to be reframed, through interpretation and explicit amendment, to say yes it includes the poor, blacks, women. Upholding and uplifting it should be our goal. Denouncing its flaws rather than fixing them undermines its respect, and threatens the rights we depend on the Constitution to protect.

Meanwhile, what do we do when elected officials lack any respect for either the letter or the spirit of the Constitution? Well, I think one of the purposes of this show at this time is to counteract that.

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