City Theatre production introduces What the Constitution Means to Me to Pittsburgh
By Sharon Eberson
Humorous and harrowing are descriptions that don’t usually go hand in hand, but that’s the thing about What the Constitution Means to Me. It defies … no, it amends expectations of what a play can be.
The work could just as easily have been titled in the form of a question: What does the constitution mean to me? It’s the questions sure to be on the minds of everyone who experiences the Tony-nominated, Pulitzer-nominated play.
Created and first performed by Heidi Schreck,What the Constitution Means to Me gave her a platform to enlighten the rest of us about her life and relationship with the U.S. Constitution. The purpose was to spark an ongoing conversation about the relevance of a document that has seen relatively little change since it became the basis of how America is governed in 1791.
What was for Schreck the story of her life lives on as actors have taken on the mantle of Heidi as a character.
Enter Tami Dixon, the virtuoso Pittsburgh actress who has been away from the stage far too long. In a tour-de-force performance for City Theatre, Dixon is walking in Heidi’s footsteps but also carving her own dynamic path in the local premiere of What the Constitution Means to Me.
Measured in words per minute alone, it’s a workout of a role. In content, it is a provocative lesson about who has the final word on our supposedly unalienable rights.
What the Constitution Means to Me is at its core one woman’s lifelong love-hate relationship with the document on which our democracy was built. On the other hand, we get to experience that emotional attachment as it pertains to her own dark family history, and how rights she once held as sacrosanct did not necessarily apply to her.
Dixon, who previously performed multiple characters in her solo show South Side Stories at City, here steps into Schreck’s shoes from age 15 to adulthood. (Kristi Jan Hoover images)
We meet young Heidi as an outgoing champion debater. She is in it to win it when it comes to standing up for the United States Constitution, in all its magical, democratic glory. Schreck earned her college tuition on the debate circuit of American Legion halls, reflected by the lineup of flags on City’s Mainstage.
Dixon keeps up a breathtaking, breakneck pace as the teen Heidi, her endless supply of expressions and energy rendering her a believably youthful word athlete.
Before getting into character, Dixon breaks the Fourth Wall to ask all audience members to think of themselves as men, because it was always an all-male audience that judged the teen debaters.
Ken Bolden shares the stage with Dixon as one such man, a Legionnaire debate moderator. He is a mostly silent presence as the benevolent keeper of the contest rules. He also holds the power to judge Heidi – a subtle reminder of the position men have held over women throughout history.
There are more reminders to come.
Schreck’s youthful innocence in regard to what the Constitution has meant to generations of women, and her family in particular, is shattered as she becomes an adult. The tonal change might not suit everyone’s fancy. But like the stated rules of debate, there’s no winning without relating personal experiences to the topic.
As Shreck, Dixon relates a staggering chain of domestic violence on the females in previous generations of her family, and how it was finally broken by her mother and aunt’s bravery in speaking out. She acknowledges, too, that white privilege and a small, close-knit community may have helped them find justice that isn’t as available to others, especially Native American women.
Adult Heidi’s long-held faith is tested by the reality of 27 amendments that do not acknowledge the existence of women. In fact, you won’t find the words “women” or “sex” in the Constitution. You can check in the copies given to the City Theatre audience as references.
The omission wasn’t a mere oversight by the Founding Fathers, who were writing a foundation for a new nation based on white male supremacy. They did, however, anticipate big changes to come.
“It may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison. “The earth belongs always to the living generation.”
He expected there to be a rewrite every 19 years. “If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right,” Jefferson wrote.
For better or worse, the Constitution has proved sturdier than he ever could have imagined.
Schreck uses her own family history, hard facts and real court cases to paint a gloomy picture of how the Constitution has been interpreted by originalist lawmakers and Supreme Court Justices.
I won’t go into all the specific statistics and rulings that are part of What the Constitution Means to Me, but one case comes across as particularly horrific. For that, we get to hear a recording of the late Justice Antonin Scalia explaining that “shall” does not actually mean “shall,” but can be taken to mean “maybe or maybe not,” referring to a state law saying police “shall” enforce lawful protections in cases of domestic violence.There is no mention of the victims in the Supreme Court’s decision to deny a mother the right to sue her local police department and the officers who ignored her pleas to enforce a restraining order against her husband. He eventually kidnapped and murdered their three children.
If lawmakers take it on the chin for, say, tossing the Equal Rights Amendment aside for 100 years, the Supreme Court gets KOed – and this was written well before Roe v. Wade was vacated by the conservative majority.
As heavy as many such revelations may be, Dixon’s Heidi mines the humor in many situations, including her own loud, ugly cry, or how her great-grandmother moved logs across water. Her snarky asides as teen Heidi can be laugh-out-loud funny.
What the Constitution Means to Me, directed by City co-artistic director Marc Masterson, flies by apace, covering so much ground, it’s hard to keep up. And just when you think that perhaps men are getting an overwhelmingly raw deal, Bolden steps into another character, and further revelations ensue.
It’s a lot, and there’s more: The show ends with a quick Q&A of pre-picked audience questions, following a live debate that asks the question: Keep or Abolish the Constitution.
It’s Dixon vs. a local high school student, going several rounds on the topic. On opening night Friday, her skilled debate opponent was Lamees Yasir Subeir of North Allegheny High (Swati Mylarappa of Fox Chapel is the other debater). Subeir got to pick the single audience member as the judge following their back-and-forth, with a little showmanship thrown in for good measure. Since participants and results will change from night to night, it doesn’t so much matter the result.
What is matters the debate that will be going on, both with fellow audience members and within, when you ask yourself about what the Constitution means to you.
Related: Click here for an interview with Tami Dixon and Ken Bolden.
“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.
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