The award-winning play by Heidi Schreck makes its Pittsburgh debut at City Theatre
By Sharon Eberson
Tami Dixon wasn’t looking for a big bear of a role when What the Constitution Means to Me came along.
The co-founder and principal creative of Bricolage Productions hadn’t been onstage since before the pandemic, and it had been a spell since she was asked to audition.
So when City came calling about auditioning for What the Constitution Means to Me, she was hesitant.
“But I didn’t want to cultivate fear, and I thought, at least I’ll read the script, ” Dixon said. “Well, I fell in love with it, and I knew this was my show. I have to do this.”
After a good deal “of praying and meditation,” and a decision to go into the audition for its own sake, the role – or rather, multiple roles, was indeed hers.
And ever since, she has been talking – or rather, saying the words of Heidi Schreck, who wrote and starred in the award-winning play that makes its Pittsburgh debut Saturday through Feb. 12 at City Theatre.
What the Constitution Means to Me had a whirlwind journey from the first production in 2017 to off-Broadway the following year, where it won the best play Obie Award, and then, in March of 2019, it came to Broadway for an extended run that year. Schreck and her play were both nominated for Tony Awards and recognized among the finalists for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The play takes a deeply personal, focused look at three generations of women in Schreck’s family and protections under the United States Constitution as it pertains to their lives, and the rights of women in general.
Schreck earned her way into college as a champion debater, so she knows about delving into penetrating questions and taking sides on big questions, such as:
Should the Constitution be abandoned as a relic of another age and rewritten for the 21st century?
Among the keys to what the Constitution means to Schreck are how the courts have interpreted rights concerning abortion, domestic abuse and immigrants.
You will hear Dixon cite statistics that are almost as harrowing as some of Schreck’s personal accounts, yet the play manages laugh-out-loud moments as well.
The men who write and enforce laws, and who take advantage of them, don’t fare well in much of the play. Dixon notes that having a man on stage, The Moderator (Ken Bolden), helps to counteract the idea that all men should be seen as bad guys.
“He’s in the play for a very specific reason,” Dixon notes. ‘Because indicting all men is wrong. And there’s a responsibility that men have and how their maleness shows up in the world.”
And, she added, “It helps that Ken Bolden is there, and that he’s a lovely human being.”
“I think Tammy has nailed it,” Bolden says. “He does represent the guy in the audience, who, you know, there are a lot of statistics that say, ‘Oh, bad, bad white men,’ and I represent that guy who’s not the bad white man. I could be their mirror in how I react to things.”
Besides her many roles as an actor, educator and creative force for Bricolage, Dixon is known by Pittsburgh theater-goers for shows including Miss Julie, Clarissa and John for Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company and The Fool in Quantum Theatre’s King Lear. Bricolage is known nationally for immersive productions, giant and smaller, such as STRATA, DODO and Immersive Encounters. Locally, the company brand includes its popular Midnight Radio series of live shows.
When last onstage at City Theatre, in 2013, Dixon was going solo in her award-winning South Side Stories, a project that she created and in which she played multiple characters. In What the Constitution Means to Me, Dixon portrays Schreck at different ages and addresses preceding generations.
The previous play “did prepare me for this not being such a daunting thing,” Dixon said. “I’m 10 years older than I was, and the physical nature is in the back of my mind now, but I’m excited about the opportunity to be in that place again. Also, there are two other actors.”
A play about a debater, that includes actual debates on a potentially contentious subject, can be a window into how to conduct ourselves when faced with opposing points of view.
This experience has helped Dixon “to be quiet and listen” on such occasions, she says. “You have to look at the other person as a human being first and not as an argument or position, and see the reasons of where they are coming from.”
Debating skills, she says, might come in handy to untangle yourself from the rigidity of a position. In the case of What the Constitution Means to Me, you likely will find the tables on the me of the title turned inward.
Notes Bolden, “There’s the whole abortion issue that’s brought up in the play that suddenly pops much more hotly now. So it’s one of those plays where, depending on what time you see it and your age, different things are going to pop out to you, which I think is really interesting. It’s like a Rorschach test.”
The play at times makes the case that the Constitution was meant to be a living, evolving document, yet the last two amendments to the Constitution were added in 1971, lowering the voting age to 18, and in 1992, about how changes to the salaries of Senators and Congressmen must be ratified.
The Equal Rights Amendment, meanwhile, failed to pass in 1923, when it was first proposed, and again in 1972.
When women have taken up the case for Constitutional protections, the amendment often cited is the Ninth, a part of the Bill of Rights that the Founding Fathers left open for interpretation. Added in 1791, it states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In other words, the rights of the people are not limited to just the rights listed there.
Penumbra – “a word you’ll never forget after seeing this show” and one that was foremost in Dixon’s mind as she prepped for the play – is how Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas described the Ninth Amendment. He said that a general right to privacy, for example, is found in the “penumbras,” or zones, created by the specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights, including the Ninth Amendment.
So, where does Dixon find herself in a debate about the Constitution, and whether it meets the needs of 21st-century Americans?
“I don’t know if I’ve made a decision,” Dixon says. “I feel like remaining in the penumbra helps me be a better listener. I do think a lack of connection to what is transpiring in our world today would keep me lonely and angry, and I don’t want to be lonely or angry. So the answer is to get more deeply connected with people and have discourse.”
And by discourse, she means listening intently to people on the other side of a debate – without malice of forethought.
Dixon is learning much in that regard from her student castmates, who both, like playwright Schreck, are practiced in the art of debating.
“I think one of the rules of debate is that it’s not just facts and statistics, but you have to tie in how it relates directly to your own life,” Dixon said. “There has to be a personal connection – and what a beautiful thing for each of us, as United States citizens, to draw a personal connection to the Constitution.
“If you know a woman,” she continued, “if you are one, if you have a mother, a sister, a daughter, an aunt, are one of those, this is a charming, intelligent interrogation of whether it truly protects and has relevance today.”
“What the Constitution Means to Me” as at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side, January 21 to February 12. Tickets and details: https://citytheatrecompany.org/play/what-the-constitution-means-to-me/ and 412-431-2489.