The new play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” is based on Washington state native Heidi Schreck’s experiences debating the Constitution around the country. She was 15 at the time. She entered a national contest sponsored by the American Legion, and applied the prize money toward the University of Oregon.
Now, 30 years later, the play focuses on two amendments, and asks what the Constitution should look like if it were rewritten today.
What unwritten rights do we have?
Aside from covering the 14th Amendment (birthright citizenship, due process, equality under the law), the play takes on the Ninth Amendment. The text: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Meaning: We can’t write down every single right. You still get rights, even if they’re not written down.
“As soon as they began to enumerate all the rights that people have,
something would, of course, be left out, right? You can't possibly enumerate every single right. And it's sort of dangerous to do that because once you start doing that, then you're suggesting that there are other rights that people don't hold,” says playwright Heidi Schreck.
She adds, “I think of it as like this little safety valve in there to say, ‘Hey, just because we didn't put it in the Constitution doesn't mean you don't have that right.’ So the complexity of it comes in how to actually use it. It's very much unlike all the other amendments, which are somewhat more clear in what they're outlining.”
Schreck notes that originalists usually poke fun at the Ninth Amendment -- even former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said he couldn’t tell you what it meant even if his life depended on it, and former U.S. Solicitor General Robert Bork described it as an inkblot amendment.
“I, as a teenager, found that all that very intriguing. I liked the mystery of it, the fact that nobody understood it, the fact that, ‘oh, this is telling me that I have other rights. What are those other rights? How do I find out what they are?’ ” Schreck says.
In the play, she has a line that says there's something hopeful about the Ninth Amendment because it suggests that who we are now may not be who we become.
Rewriting the Constitution
The play features a debate on whether the Constitution should be abolished and a more modern one should be written.
“One of the reasons we have the debate is because there have been many constitutions written since ours, and modern constitutions typically contain something called positive rights, which are active human rights protections, which our Constitution doesn't contain,” Schreck says.
She notes that 179 constitutions include gender protections, but ours is not one of them.
“I raise the idea of abolishing it in the show, in part, because I think sometimes it's helpful to take a thing that we view as sacred and say, ‘What if there were negative space here? … What would we do? What would we imagine? What if we had to start right now with the country that we have … what is it that we need now?” says Schreck.
Maria Dizzia, who stars as Schreck in the LA play, says she goes back and forth on abolishing the Constitution. “Sometimes I think we have to keep it. Who on earth would we nominate that we feel good about to construct this new document, or do we even get to nominate them?” she says.
Who watches the play?
Dizzia says it’s really hard to tell if audiences have a certain political leaning.
“I would imagine that there are people who feel a spectrum of ways. Audiences do have a tendency to become one mind. There are some audiences that are noisier than others,” says Dizzia. “Sometimes when I bring up ... 1973 Supreme Court case Roe versus Wade, it's met with applause and cheers. And other times it's very, very quiet. But I wouldn't ever be able to say that I could judge what the politics are. … But I can tell that there are times when it seems that the audience is ‘where are we going?’ … And other audiences are ‘let's get there.’”
Schreck adds, “Because the show is a deep dive into my own personal history; and also the history of our country; and the history of, in particular, the 14th Amendment, I found a surprisingly positive response from conservative audience members in the play.”
“What the Constitution Means to Me” is going on now through Feb. 28 at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown LA.
--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski