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'What the Constitution Means to Me' at the Mark Taper Forum


Jocelyn Shek and Maria Dizzia | Joan Marcus
What the Constitution Means to Me is written by Heidi Schreck and directed by Oliver Butler. During its run at the Mark Taper Forum, the role of Heidi is played by Maria Dizzia. 
I have only had the pleasure of seeing What the Constitution Means to Me performed by Dizzia, who takes the language of the piece so personally an audience member who didn't know any better, who was unfamiliar with Dizzia and Schreck, might believe the actress to have penned the words herself. 
The play (performance piece) follows a young Heidi as she competes to earn scholarship money by giving speeches about the constitution at the American Legion hall in Wenatchee, Washington.  Throughout the evening, Dizzia alternates between teenage Heidi and adult Heidi to discuss the constitution and what it meant to her as a young woman orating for the sake of scholarship money and a grown woman reflecting on how her country's failed to protect generations of women.  
The set mirrors the American Legion hall Heidi's competitions took place in when she was a teenager. It is drab and unexciting, as many Americans view the constitution. Heidi is not one of those Americans. Young Heidi feels the constitution is a fascinating, hot, living entity–she informs the audience that, at the time she was giving these speeches, her major points of interest were witches and Patrick Swayze. She compares the constitution to a witch's cauldron. A hot, sexy (like Swayze) witch's cauldron.   
Dizzia is accompanied on stage by Mike Iveson who plays a judge or sort of rule enforcer for the speech competition. He lets Heidi know when she's gone overtime or if she's speaking about the incorrect amendment. As the night goes on, she listens to him–to his rules–less and less.  
Young Heidi lets the audience know she's always had trouble connecting her personal life to the constitution (the winning recipe for a scholarship-money-worthy speech). While she's passionate about the document our founding fathers crafted, there are certain subjects she doesn't like to talk about. Like the abuse her grandmother and mother experienced.  
When Dizzia switches over to adult Heidi she opens up fully about the abuse the women in her family underwent. About how her great-great-grandmother died from melancholia at 36 and how her grandmother's second husband beat their children and impregnated one of them (twice).  She talks about generational trauma and how the justice system (could have, should have helped but) failed to stop the pattern.
Young Heidi might have had trouble elaborating on her personal connections to the constitution, but adult (playwright) Heidi has no problem doing so. Sometimes our young brains don't make connections in an effort to protect ourselves from harsh realities, as a means of survival.       
What the Constitution Means to Me may be maddening for women to take in (as it was, sometimes, for me). Especially at the point in which the audience experiences the horror of listening to a recording of Supreme Court justices stiltedly discussing birth control just after adult Heidi rawly tells us about her own experience with abortion.  
But then the third act begins and Jocelyn Shek, a teenager, comes on stage (sometimes the "part" is played by Shek and sometimes it is played by Rosdely Ciprian–I got to watch Shek). Dizzia and Shek go head-to-head in a debate about whether America should abolish the constitution and start from scratch or keep working with the document, as a sculptor molds an old piece of clay.   
The audience decides who wins the debate. At the performance I attended, Shek won. We should continue to work with our current constitution, as it protects more people than it harms. Shek made several powerful arguments that filled me, and much of the audience around me, with a strong sense of optimism. If this young, bright, tenacious mind doesn't want to start from scratch maybe things aren't so bad after all. Or maybe they are, but the young Heidis and Jocelyns of the world have enough pertinacity and hope to go around for everyone. 
The end of the show was my favorite part. Each night as the audience exits the theatre, they have the opportunity to write questions for the performers to answer on stage the following night. The evening ends with Dizzia and Shek sitting back-to-back on stage together under a spotlight answering personal questions about themselves. Dizzia told the audience and Sheck about how she sings in the shower and Sheck spoke about how she wants to eventually write policy and own a few goldfish. She maybe wants kids and a spouse, too.  
Before leaving, each audience member receives a pocket-sized constitution–a reminder that we all own this document, this living, breathing, hot, sexy document. As it stands, the constitution needs to do better at protecting women and minorities. But if young Heidi and Shek can believe in the constitution then so can I. I did not leave the theatre feeling frightened and crazed. I felt hopeful. And excited to go home and review my pocket constitution.  
What the Constitution Means to Me runs until February 28. You can purchase tickets here.

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