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We the People


Special promotional content provided by Forward Theater Company

by Mike Fischer, Forward Theater Company

What does the U.S. Constitution mean to you? 

As playwright Heidi Schreck suggests through the very title of What the Constitution Means to Me – being staged by Forward Theater at the Overture Center from April 4-21 – that’s a more radical question than you might think.

The first word in Schreck’s title is an interrogative pronoun; the last word makes her query personal, underscoring that the constitution can mean different things to different people. “The constitution” that’s embedded within Schreck’s title is literally surrounded. 

Contrary to what the benighted originalists on the U.S. Supreme Court might believe, Scheck’s title suggests that what this piece of paper might mean at any given time is up for grabs, depending on who’s interpreting it. It’s worth noting in this context that among the meanings of “constitute,” as defined by the OED, are “make,” “form” and “determine.” All of them are strong, active verbs. 

“The Founding Fathers,” writes historian Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States (1980), had created a constitution designed to preserve “a balance among the dominant forces at that time.” They certainly didn’t “want an equal balance between slaves and masters, propertyless and property holders, Indians and whites.” 

Moreover, Zinn continues, “as many as half the people” in 1787 America weren’t considered by the Founding Fathers at all. “They were not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence,” Zinn notes. “They were absent in the Constitution, they were invisible in the new political democracy. They were the women of early America.”

Hear Me Roar

The character of Heidi – embodied in Forward’s production by the great Colleen Madden – is anything but invisible, and she’s willing to reshape the rules to ensure she gets heard.  

Sure: when we first see her 15-year-old self competing for scholarship money in Legion halls by giving speeches involving the meaning of the Constitution, she’s scrupulously adhering to contest rules regulating when and how she can speak to the legionnaires assembled before her, while surrounded by photos of past legionnaires on the walls.

But even as one of those legionnaires stands on stage with Heidi, monitoring her adherence to this time-honored contest procedure, Schreck’s initial stage directions give a hint of what’s to come.

“A live plant lurks in a corner,” she writes, as “a reminder that although this place is filled with ghosts, it also welcomes the living.” In welcoming teenaged Heidi into their hallowed hall, the legionnaires have – perhaps inadvertently – made room to tell old stories in a new way. 

In revising those old stories by telling her own, young Heidi doesn’t just gradually alter the rules of the game under which she must compete. More radically, her adult self – the actor and writer creating this play – draws on her own experience to suggest that the game itself is rigged against women. 

I’ll let Madden’s performance on stage reveal the often harrowing details of the family history within which Schreck experiences what it means to be a woman in America; as in every such story, those details are both intensely personal and distressingly familiar.

What Schreck’s story makes clear is that the meaning of the U.S. Constitution can evolve; “who we are now,” she tells us at one point, “may not be who we will become.”  But as she also reminds us – driving home what’s been made even more clear by the Supreme Court’s shameful Dobbs decision two years ago – “progress doesn’t only move one way.”

Constituting History 

The frequently depressing background against which Schreck’s story emerges renders all the more inspiring her decision to tell it at all; ditto the decision by companies like Forward and actors like Madden to embody that story for us. Their presence – and this play – are testament to our ability to persevere. Do better. And re-constitute what this country means.

“Maybe,” Schreck suggests at one point, “we could all just imagine that we’re somewhere else Maybe we could imagine something else.” 

Releasing the audience from its initially imposed duty to imagine themselves as male legionnaires passing judgment on a 15-year-old girl, Schreck challenges us mid-play to instead imagine that we might come into our own and be ourselves – much as we watch her morph from the 15-year-old girl she once was into the full-fledged adult she now is.

If we could join her in learning from who we once were to imagine all we could be – if, as Schreck beautifully suggests at one point, we might imagine the Constitution as holding the memory of our future – might we not thereby honor and incorporate all that is best in our collective past, even as we imagine a better version of who we could yet become? 

Might we perhaps see the Constitution as less a settled proposition than a promise, in which our understanding of what “we the people” means becomes still more expansive and inclusive depending on how we live and what we decide, individually and as a community?

“Why,” Schreck asks late in her play, “not just think of the Constitution as a human being,” imperfect but also “growing and changing. Learning.” And, Schreck continues, therefore “capable of getting better,” if we’d but open our minds to that possibility – and recognize that we must fight to make our dreams come true.

Toward the beginning of Schreck’s play, the legionnaire will sternly instruct the audience to hold our applause and behave. Before the play concludes, that same audience will be encouraged to actively participate in determining how it ends; as always, content dictates form. 

“Democracy,” Schreck tells us, “is something we have to make happen, we have to fight for, every single day,” because “no one’s coming to save us.” “Start with your own personal Constitution,” she implores us, “and build your way out.”

What does the U.S. Constitution mean to you? 

As we anxiously slouch toward November’s elections, that question has never mattered more. Schreck’s play won’t tell you how to answer it. But it just might inspire you to ask it with the urgency and care it deserves. 

For more information regarding and tickets to What the Constitution Means to Me, visit https://forwardtheater.com/show/what-the-constitution-means-to-me/.