Who would have thought a play title as prosaic as “What the Constitution Means to Me” would in 2019 resound with such passion and urgency? But that’s been the intense reaction to Heidi Schreck’s celebrated performance piece, a Broadway hit this past season and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The work comes to the Kennedy Center this month with Schreck continuing as its star; a national tour with a new actress begins in Los Angeles early next year. Taking the form of a poignant and funny memoir, the play recounts Schreck’s participation in American Legion contests in which students tested their mastery of the U.S. Constitution. Over the course of 100 minutes, Schreck manages to vibrantly animate a document that some people may have consigned to the dry parchment archive of their memories.
In the spirit of civic-minded outreach that Schreck’s play engenders — and certainly, as it reaches a city that uses the document as a kind of daily how-to manual — we asked some leading American figures in politics, media, the arts and the law about what the Constitution means to them.
Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaker of the House of Representatives
In their great wisdom, our Founders enshrined our most sacred freedoms in the First Amendment, which is the guardian of our democracy and of all the liberties that come after it. In the People’s House, we are entrusted with the sacred responsibility to protect those liberties for the American people, and to advance a future that honors both the words of our Founders and the well-being of generations to come.
Barbra Streisand, Oscar-winning actress, director, singer
The 14th Amendment of our Constitution actualized what many of the Founders wanted, promoting equal protection under the law for all Americans. If I could, I would end the antiquated electoral college. Twice in the last 20 years the popular vote winner was denied the presidency. This is an assault on our democratic principles, where the dictum should hold true: one person, one vote.
Luis A. Miranda Jr., board chairman of the Latino Victory Fund and founding partner of the MirRam Group; father of Lin-Manuel Miranda
First in our Bill of Rights — Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” — because it is key to our future as a nation. It is no surprise that every time I hear [President Trump] say or see him tweet, ‘The Fake and Corrupt Media is sooo bad for our Country, The Enemy of the People!,’ I cringe. Our society relies on an honest and dependable press. And sometimes a negative press review can close a Broadway show or derail a promising political career. But it also can move a country like Puerto Rico to get rid of corruption or portray pain so vividly that millions are moved to show generosity, as they did in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Our Founders got it right.
Laurence Tribe, professor at Harvard Law School
To me, the Constitution is more verb than noun. Less a bequest from a few inspired but flawed white men than a challenge to build “a more perfect Union,” a fairer and more equal nation, from their hopes and ideals — and from the dreams of those who marched and fought and died to make those ideals real.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), three-term member of Congress
In Congress, I am proud to represent New York’s 21st District, home of the battles of Saratoga, Fort Ticonderoga and Fort William Henry, one of the geographic cradles of the American Revolution. My husband and I live in Schuylerville, named after the Schuyler family, who were so brilliantly depicted in the musical masterpiece “Hamilton.” Honoring our nation’s founding history fought for and envisioned by the “young, scrappy, and hungry’” is part of our daily lives. Given this fabric of history embedded in Upstate New York, my district truly cherishes our Constitution. Of particular personal meaning to me this year is the 19th Amendment, recognizing women’s suffrage, which was passed by Congress 100 years ago. Perhaps lesser known than the Revolutionary-era characters depicted in “Hamilton,” suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of the Declaration of Sentiments presented at the Seneca Falls Convention, hails from my district and was born in Johnstown, N.Y. Her extraordinary advocacy for women’s suffrage leading to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution is one of the cornerstones of history that empowers me to serve in the hallowed halls of Congress today.
Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center
I have a strong memory of a conversation with my father when I was a young person, sharing important family values. That conversation was about humanity and equity: “Please remember, all people are created equal, and everyone deserves equal opportunity,” he told me. This, for me, is the foundation of my identity, my pursuits and beliefs — initially around my own personal opportunities and then, over time, how that impacts others and the communities I live in, as well as my chosen profession. My father instilled in me the belief that I, as a woman, deserved every opportunity, and ultimately this is true for all people, no matter their background, race or religion. The Constitution, to me, upholds those values, guides these principles and protects these freedoms. To draw a straight line, the Constitution is the foundation of my personal beliefs and the very essence of my identity as a woman, wife, mother, daughter, American.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
There is no passage in the Constitution that has done more to shape our modern conception of what it means to be American than the 14th Amendment, one of the three amendments ratified after the end of the Civil War. It guarantees birthright citizenship, articulates the promise of equality, and fundamentally reorders the relationship between the federal government and the states, empowering Congress to pass laws to protect us against the prejudices of the states. Although these guarantees were focused on protecting African Americans (the vast majority of whom were newly freed slaves in 1868), they have come to embody the rights that all Americans regard as inalienable. Since the amendment’s ratification, these guarantees have been the basis upon which the political, economic and social fabric of this country have been transformed many times over.
Nicolle Wallace, author and anchor of MSNBC's 'Deadline: White House'; White House communications director under President George W. Bush
“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States . . .”
At this moment of extraordinary rancor, this is (or in my opinion should be) the most clarifying phrase of the Constitution. For all of our disagreements about the current occupant of the Oval Office, I worry that we forget that a president’s most solemn duty is to the men and women who give their lives to protect everything we hold dear.
When a president errs, his critics have a constitutionally protected right to criticize him at the top of their lungs. But when a president doesn’t seem to understand history or the gravity of the office he occupies, we are in uncharted territory.
What the Constitution Means to Me, by Heidi Schreck. $49-$169. Sept. 11-22 at the Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.