What the Constitution Means to Me

There was something that always blew me away as a sportswriter … every town and city where I went for games, there was always some sort of interesting tradition or chant or custom that everybody else knew about. Some of these have become pretty well-known nationally — the Rock Chalk Jayhawk chant at Kansas or the Howard’s Rock thing at Clemson or dotting the i at Ohio State or the unsinkable euprhoria of the Marching 100 at Florida A&M.

But most of these sorts of practices and rituals are unknown outside their communities.

At Nebraska football games, for instance, they grill hamburgers in the shape of the state of Nebraska, and if you are a real Husker fan, you squeeze your ketchup/mustard along the path of the Platte River.

Stuff like that.

I so deeply love stuff like that. I keep a list in my mind. Finding those little traditions, honestly, was my favorite part of traveling to new places to see games. More than the sightseeing, the joy was traveling to all 50 states and seeing those local ceremonies, tasting those local foods, hearing those local cheers (it always made me insanely happy to see how EVERYBODY knew exactly what to do). I don’t want to overstate the significance of catching the local sports fever in Boise, San Diego, Austin, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Starkville and Tallahassee, but it made me feel, well, splendidly American.

Here we all are, fans of the same sport, but it’s not the same, not exactly, we’re different and the same, together and distinct, simultaneous and a little bit out of sync.

It’s dangerous to talk about how you love America these days. Maybe it always was. We have such different views about what it means to be American, about what America itself means. We have such different views about the past, about the present, about the future. We lose faith — or have long ago lost faith — that we can find each other.

In this time, it feels naive — or, frankly, something more menacing and perilous than naive — to try explaining your own connection to America, your own feelings about what this country represents. You will be understood and misunderstood and, in both cases, there will be fire. You will preach to the choir but not move the bystanders. You will draw applause from the likeminded and activate the trolls.

Even talking about finding common ground enrages so many.

And the overwhelming likelihood is that you will walk away from the experience feeling like you had done no good … that it just wasn’t worth it.

That’s why Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” felt so remarkable.

Broadway is a funny little world all its own. Inside Broadway, there are gigantic stars and life-altering shows and earth-shaking movements. And outside Broadway, most of these never even spark a gentle breeze. That’s what made Hamilton such a singular phenomenon; kids all over the country got into it. That doesn’t happen. Shows come to Broadway, and they sell out, and they initiate a ticketing black market, and they become the place for celebrities to be seen, and in most places across the country they don’t even create a ripple.

All of which is to say that I’d never even heard of “What’s the Constitution Means to Me,” before I came to New York last week. I would consider myself a moderate Broadway fan, and as such I probably SHOULD have heard of it since it was nominated for a couple of Tony Awards and it was a Pulitzer finalist. But I was completely unaware until I happened to walk by the Helen Hayes Theater on 44th Street and saw the advertisements.*

*Whenever I walk by a Broadway theater and see the advertisements, I think of the Jerry Seinfeld Amex commercial where he and Superman are walking by “Oh Yes, Wyoming,” on Broadway.

“Look at these reviews,” Superman says.

“Of course they only put up the good ones,” Seinfeld says. “Every play does that.”

“No, that’s Joel Siegel,” Superman says. “I usually trust him.”

The advertisements for “What the Constitution” were interesting enough that I asked around … and found that, yes, the play is one of those distinctly Broadway sensations. New York was buzzing about it. RBG apparently had just gone. People talked about it being life altering. Tickets were tough to get. I lucked into a good seat on a Thursday night.

And it was like … well, it is hard to explain. I’ve been thinking for a few days now how to describe what it was like. I think the only way is to do that dangerous thing and talk a little bit about what I love about America.

The plot of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” — a carefully constructed plot, Schreck reminds us several times in the show — builds around the fact that when Schreck was a teenager, she traveled to American Legion Halls and participated in debates about the Constitution. She did this, she explains, to raise college money. And the show is loosely a recreation of these debates, with photos of more than 100 men on the walls and an American Legionnaire on the stage to keep things straight. It ends with Schreck having an actual debate about the Constitution with a brilliant young high schooler, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Here’s the magic of the play.

In a continuous flurry of storytelling, Schreck somehow manages to do two contrasting things simultaneously.

  1. She talks about the terrible and often shocking evils of America.

  2. She talks about why she deeply loves about America.

I’m still not entirely sure how she does this. The key word here is “simultaneously.” She does not play the good and bad off each other in some unchallenging or foreseeable way. She does not ever say anything like, “Despite the fact that America is X, I love her because of Y.” That kind of argument would be fairly easy to dissect, but she doesn’t do that.

Instead Schreck reveals horrors about the Constitution (particularly its shocking disregard for women) and recent American history and her own past. And, at exactly the same time, she also offers hope and aspiration and joy. It’s a very funny play for a tragedy. It’s a heart-wrenching play for a comedy.

The thing, I think, that grabs my heart most powerfully in movies and plays and history and literature is when the bad guy surprises everyone and does the good thing. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I think it has something to do with the complexity of being human, the belief that inside all of us are crashing cymbals. My e-migo Chris Calogero does this character, the uncle you for sure is about to say something but instead turns out to go the other way:

In so many ways, that captures what I love about America. We contain multitudes. I am, by some definitions, a first-generation American. My parents came to America two years before I was born, and they raised me on the wonder of this country, on Fourth of July fireworks and Thanksgiving turkey and Labor Day telethons and the words of Lincoln, MLK, Elvis and Barbra.

And having traveled this country while chasing baseballs and basketballs and footballs and golf balls, I constantly fall in love with that America that is constantly surprising and yet always familiar. I fall in love with those many parts America that should be entirely foreign to me having grown up in an immigrant’s home in Cleveland but somehow still feel a little bit like home. I constantly fall in love with that America that is almost never in the news, where everything is so stark and predictable and filled with paper good guys and bad guys who will never, can never, break character.

At one point in the “What the Constitution Means to Me,” someone in the audience sneezed.

“Bless you,” Heidi said, right in the middle of a soliloquy.

For some reason, I think that of the many things I will remember from the play that will always stand out.

“What the Constitution Means to Me,” is not an easy play. Schreck makes you look directly into the sun. She tells many stories that will haunt you, including the story of Jessica Lenahan. You may know it; in 1999, she got a restraining order against her estranged husband. On the day that her husband kidnapped their three children, she called and went to the police several times and was told that there was nothing they could do.

In the middle of the night, the husband showed up at the police station and got into a shootout. After he was killed, they raced to the car to find all three children murdered.

Lenahan sued the police department in a case that eventually went to the Supreme Court (which found that the police did not have a constitutional duty to enforce the restraining order) and then to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (which found the United States responsible for human rights violations).

On the night I saw the show, Lenahan herself was in the audience, and after the show she did a talkback on the stage with Schreck and others. Someone asked Lenahan how it felt to have her story told on Broadway, and she talked about the miracle of feeling heard.

That was, to me, the theme of the night: Feeling heard. In many ways, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” is directed to everybody BUT me; at one point Schreck jokes that everyone in the audience should pretend to be an older white man which was probably easier for me to simulate that most of the audience members.

But what I heard was a story of an America that we so rarely tell ourselves these days. One of the hilarious inside jokes of the play is that the Constitution is NOT a patchwork quilt. This apparently was the marketable proposition of her greatest teenage debate rival, and Schreck’s grandest goal in life was to blow it up.

And she does it blow it up, fabric by fabric, until it seems all that is left is despair. And then, at that exact moment, at the lowest moment, Schreck debates the high schooler — the brilliant Rosdely Ciprian the night I saw the show — about whether to abolish or keep the Constitution. They go back and forth, exchanging logical haymakers, until at the very end they ask a delegate of the audience to cast the final vote.

The night I saw that show, the vote was to keep the Constitution.

From what I’m told, in the end, despite the challenges, despite the pain, despite the failures, the vote usually goes that way. This is the sorcery of “What the Constitution Means to Me.” You walk away heartbroken, angry, touched and altered, and somehow, some way, you can still believe in America just a little bit more.