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Theater Review: “What the Constitution Means to Me”

Forward Theater’s production of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” directed by Jen Uphoff Gray, captures audiences with its unique approach to considering the United States Constitution.

Leading actress Colleen Madden of American Players Theater portrays playwright and protagonist Heidi Schreck in this autobiographical play. Madden opens the play by introducing herself as Heidi Schreck and explaining her connection to the Constitution. As a high schooler, Schreck competed in constitutional speech and debate contests, for which she earned college scholarships. At age 15, Schreck loved the Constitution and its study, and she felt deeply inspired by this “living document.”

The first part of the play revolves around 50-year-old Schreck “recreating” one of her high school competitions. She acts like her polite and invigorated 15-year-old self. But she also pauses her reenactment to comment on how her understanding of amendments and clauses has deepened through time and experience.

Eventually, Schreck forgoes acting out long-ago debates and competitions. She instead dives deeper into her analysis of ways the Constitution both protects us and sometimes lets us down. The character explores flaws in the document using lenses like women’s rights, immigrant rights, and racism. She draws connections between the Constitution and her own life, sharing stories of women in her family and how the Constitution affected them, either through improving their circumstances or blatantly leaving their rights out of the law.

Schreck’s own interpretation and understanding are augmented by haunting statistics, court cases, and even recorded conversations of Supreme Court justices or politicians.

Schreck’s humor weaves everywhere in the play, balancing troubling and sometimes tear-jerking accounts of constitutional shortcomings. Madden embodies the lightheartedness of the playwright through her physicality and expressiveness, but she also communicates the heaviness of the topics at hand.

Madden’s performance and Schreck’s words create a palatable and very relatable show that effectively communicates the importance and urgency of the political climate in the United States to all audiences, young and old.

The play closes with an ode to the upcoming generation. A high school actor, either Alliae Krueger or Caroline Talis depending on the night, joins Colleen Madden and Casem AbuLughod on stage to participate in a live debate. The topic: should the U.S. Constitution should be abolished. The outcome of the debate is decided by the audience each night, making the viewer an active participant in the show. The actors share their views and hopes for the future, leaving the audience and the adults feeling hopeful that the youth of today will understand and care about the rights of people living in this country.

During a post-show talk, Madden shared how her role in this production helped her form a newfound understanding of the impact of the Constitution. She explained that working with the young actors and debating with them helped her contextualize the implications of the document. She said she gained an appreciation for how personal the Constitution and its amendments are to her and to everyone else.

Madden emphasized that the arts hold great power in communicating messages to the public, and this play is a prime example. Since its debut on Broadway in 2019, the play has run in theaters all over the country, highlighting a tense political climate in the United States.

Forward Theater’s run will end on April 21st.

The actors were accompanied during the talk-back session by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jill Karafsky, who answered questions from the audience, and helped explain some of the nuances of the Constitution and how it’s enforced. The conversation reinforced the play’s suggestion that while the document itself is flawed, much of the negative impact is a result of the interpretation of the Constitution by people in power.

At Simpson Street Free Press, civics education is a regular part of newsroom operations. Our students study the constitutional system, understand the Bill of Rights, and watch how free people exercise rights. We read about times when rights were upheld, and also times when they were violated.

This type of critical analysis of the Constitution can be seen in “What the Constitution Means to Me.” It’s necessary for all citizens to recognize inconsistencies in legislation and to hold government accountable. As Madden expressed in the talk-back in reference to the Constitution, “It’s ours, we should know what it says.”

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