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REVIEW: ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ merges the personal with the political in a profound and

Updated: Apr 22, 2022

The critically esteemed play “What the Constitution Means to Me” opened at Tennessee Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, engaging Nashvillians in a night of fervent political discourse and raw, emotional storytelling.

This thought-provoking play functions as part memoir, part debate and features playwright Heidi Shreck as the main character. 

The show kicks off with Schreck reenacting her time as a teenage debate champion, during which she traveled across the country to speak on her personal connection with the Constitution for scholarship money.

Through the flashback, she lays groundwork regarding the details of the Ninth and 14th Amendments, highlighting her younger self’s naive takes and “psychotically polite” attitude. Then, she breaks away from the past to divulge how her life and relationship to the Constitution changed as she aged.

A deeply profound stream of stories connecting the women in her life to the Constitution unfolds, piercing the hearts of the audience with shocking and relatable truths.

Her exploration culminates in a sparkling, live debate, which leaves the audience mulling over the past, present and future of our nation.

Cassie Beck portrays modern-day Schreck, now in her mid-forties, in a vibrant and captivating performance. She sailed the audience through the highs and lows of Schreck’s life, delivering hilarity and tragedy in graceful, commanding swoops.

When Beck stepped out on stage, donning a vibrant, yellow blazer to take on the role of Schreck, she immediately shattered the fourth wall and directly addressed the audience. The tactic created an intimacy that made this true story feel all the more real — and added a dose of comedic relief.

The show’s set is modeled after American Legion halls across the nation, which hosted the scholarship contest of Schreck’s youth. Schreck’s character accurately mocks the set as something more akin to a cabin in the woods from a horror flick, but the boys-club feel still comes across, loudly contrasting with the feminist themes of this woman-powered play.

Cassie Beck in the North American Tour of “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Joan Marcus

A legionnaire, played by Gabriel Marin, accompanies Beck on stage throughout the play. Though Marin speaks few lines, the duo’s interactions brought a playful dynamic to the stage. The audience chuckled at every withering stare thrown by Beck, pointed at Marin’s insistence on timing her debate responses to ensure they fit the contest’s parameters.

As the story shifts away from the contest, Schreck reveals tragic, intimate details about her experiences with issues like rape culture and abortion, tying them to how women are viewed in the eyes of the law.

Breath-catching moments and startling facts cast guttural hushes across the theater on Tuesday, underscoring the faint sniffles of young women in the audience.

Through her anecdotes, Schreck makes the personal universal. She explores the impact of the Constitution on women spanning three generations: her grandmothers, her mother and herself. Their stories touch on the reality of all disenfranchised groups in America, but they most profoundly invoke the inherited trauma of American women.

To broaden the play’s scope and relatability, Marin eventually sheds his legionnaire garb to become himself. Through his personal accounts of growing up as a straight white man, he provides insight as to how the repression of men ties into the oppression of women.

With this breakout moment, the fabric of the play begins to unravel, leading to Beck abandoning the role of Schreck to play herself. Beck then introduces a real-life teen debater, and the two engage in a fiery, stimulating debate regarding the future of the Constitution.

Just 17 years old, Jocelyn Shek fulfilled the role of the teen debater on opening night, impressing the audience with her enthusiasm, poise and intelligence. Shek seemed to be the play’s effort at offering a beacon of hope at the end of a harrowing journey. She represented the next generation of voters and lawmakers, and ideally a brighter future.

Jocelyn Shek in the North American Tour of “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Joan Marcus

The success of “What the Constitution Means to Me” lies in its ability to spark conversations and give voice to marginalized groups. Many may leave the theater with a heavy heart, but many may also emerge feeling deeply validated.

Even if, for some, Schreck’s experiences don’t feel relatable, they still command attention and push viewers to dive deep. Alongside the stars of the show, they begin to form their own connections to the Constitution. They begin to consider how this document has influenced their lives and social perceptions — and maybe even the lives of their neighbors.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” drips with vitality, emotion and innovation, standing out as a profound and entertaining examination of American life. It holds space as a pivotal piece of political theater, inciting the audience to compassionately and civically engage in the world.

The play will run at TPAC’s Polk Theater through Sunday, April 3.

Belmont students can get tickets for $19 by applying the promo code “BRUINS” prior to ticket selection.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” was written by Heidi Schreck and directed by Oliver Butler.

PHOTO: Cassie Beck in the North American Tour of “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Joan Marcus

This article was written by Meagan Irby.

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