Heidi Schreck and Laurence Tribe Challenge the Constitution at 92Y Talkback

  • Katherine Hebert

Upon entering the Helen Hayes Theatre to see “What the Constitution Means to Me”, I was met with a wall of white cis male faces symbolically relegating anyone falling outside of these parameters as an inherent outlier. Fortunately, this was not my experience walking into the 92Y to hear Heidi Schreck and Harvard professor Laurence Tribe discuss Schreck’s play as well as our nation’s complicated relationship with the titular document.

Heidi Schreck is a playwright, performer, and screenwriter. Her play, “What the Constitution Means to Me” is a Tony and Pulitzer nominated gut punch of a comedy.  Schreck’s play tackles the lack of inclusion in the Constitution by way of her own inherited family trauma. As the play continues, the audience is faced with the sobering realities of operating as a minority in any capacity within the confines of the united states. If you can afford the ticket, I highly recommend attending a performance. Schreck’s play is funny, poignant, at times sobering, and so relevant right now that I’d genuinely argue there’s a moral obligation to make her play as accessible as possible.

Laurence H. Tribe has one of the most intimidating resumes I have ever encountered. He is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard. Tribe has written over 115 articles and books, his most recent endeavor being “To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment”. In 2010 he was appointed by President Obama (who used to be Tribe’s TA) as the Senior Counselor for Access to Justice. He’s on Twitter, and the moderator for this talkback, Dahlia Lithwick as well as myself suggest you follow him.

Despite their wildly different backgrounds and careers, Tribe and Schreck were brought together for this discussion because, as our moderator Dahlia Lithwick is quick to point out, “Everything interesting about the play and about what you (Tribe) intersects at the constitution” (Dahlia Lithwick). When asked about their relationship to the document itself, Tribe described the constitution as “A blueprint brought to life by those who support it.” He went on to say “The trouble is that the Constitution Means different things to different people.”

Heidi Schreck’s response was a bit more complex. “What the Constitution Means to Me” concludes with a literal debate reminiscent of the ones from her childhood, the topic being “Should we keep or abolish the constitution?”. At the performance I saw Schreck debated for abolish. Schreck said that as far as her relationship to the constitution goes, it changes depending on what she argued that day. I’d imagine debating the same question from different points of view for the length of a Broadway run would endear you to both sides of the argument. In her words “The text doesn’t change the experience is more vivid depending on the news of the day.”  Schreck describes her work as more of an investigation of the document’s relevance rather than a critique.

When asked if she believes the constitution has let women down, Heidi Schreck describes her love affair with the 9th amendment. Schreck thinks of the 9th Amendment as a sort of gateway for any female, non-white, gay, or trans people to be included under the creed “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be constructed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”. She goes on to describe it as “a place to imagine the future. It’s a way to gain rights the founders couldn’t have imagined”.

There’s a mutual love of the Constitution between the two and an agreement that now more than ever there is a desperate need to engage with the document. Tribe warned the audience that the Democrats’ inability to prioritize is what keeps leading to their downfall in the face of a Republican party whose agenda seems to be retrogression.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Schreck suggests both in her play as well as in the talkback I attended that this could be rectified with an equal rights amendment. Tribe warned however that we cannot underestimate the Republican party’s perversity when it comes to manipulating the language utilized in these documents. He cited specifically the countless conservative politicians that insisted abortion should be illegal so they could “protect women”. Tribe argues that “It’s not the constitution it’s a problem of power” and warns that “The institutions may hold but if the norms are gone. It’ll take generations to recover”. He goes on to say that “Tyranny happens by the slow drip-drip process we’re now witnessing.”

This lead to a two-fold question that struck a chord with me on a personal level. “How do young people find hope, and do we fail young people by exclusion from Political discourse. ” This inquiry made me shift a bit uncomfortably in my seat as I glanced around the room and took note that at 24 I was one of the youngest if not the youngest person in the room. Tribe was quick to answer the second part of the question confirming that yes, we do fail young people by excluding them from the conversation. But as far as finding hope Shriek said, “We have to save ourselves, we have to save ourselves and engage.”

Shriek’s view of the younger generations is incredibly optimistic. She describes the kids from the Parkland shooting as examples of a generation that is already more active and more involved than she was as a child. Heidi additionally calls the high schoolers she debates (Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams)  at the conclusion of her play  brilliant and goes on to say they give her genuine hope for the future. And after seeing her play I have to say I full heartedly agree.

I have already mentioned that at the performance I saw Schreck chose to debate to abolish the constitution but Rosdely Ciprian debated to keep the constitution and won. One of her points against abolish was that there would be no standard for who could write this new document and did we want her, for example, to draft this document. To which someone in the audience responded with a very passionate “YES”. Ciprian went onto contest that the Constitution is the only thing holding our nation together and the solution was not to abolish the document but rather to hold the people in power responsible. How do we do that? Well we do what Schreck suggested we save ourselves and engage.