Debate Night

What the Constitution Means to Me

Tonight is the night of the final presidential debate. I searched long and hard for the most wacked-out debate bingo cards that I could find, with the hope that they would at least partially reflect some of the chaos that I expect to see tonight, but nothing looks even close. When will all of this be over?

The other night, we watched What the Constitution Means to Me. A play, it had been on Broadway this year, up until that went dark. Now it is available on Amazon Prime. Autobiographical, Heidi Schreck wrote and stars in this mostly one-woman show. It tells her life story and that of her family and features her fifteen-year-old self. When Schreck was in high school, she competed in debates on the US Constitution that were sponsored by the American Legion and won scholarship money. She won enough money to pay her way through college. Schreck recreates one of these debates, but instead of debating another high school opponent, who might argue that the Constitution is like a patchwork quilt, she shatters the fourth wall and asks the audience to be stand-in Legionnaires for those whom she had once performed. Her arguments are personal, sometimes heartbreaking, but more frequently humorous. Her play is not a patchwork quilt, but a tightly woven argument.

The play begins with an example debate. In this one young Heidi is asked to explain what Section 1 of the 14th Amendment means to her. Rigorously timed, she spouts her arguments with the rapidity of a machine gun. Amazon’s poster shows Ms. Schreck wearing a bright yellow blazer, like she did before and holding a copy of the book that was her study guide then. It was endorsed by Herbert Hoover and might have been missing a few of the most recent amendments. Having once set the scene though, the older Schreck reenters and with her lifetime of experiences begins to extemporize.

She proceeds to ping-pong between legal precedents and a travelogue of her family’s history, beginning with her great-grandmother, who in the 19th-century came west to Washington state as a mail-order bride. Thus begins her litany about the travails of the women in her family and how the law had mostly failed them. Her great-grandmother died young from melancholy. Her grandmother had to deal with an abusive spouse and her mother who wanted to be a writer in NYC, but became pregnant with Heidi the year before birth control was legalized. This last personal story segues beautifully into a description of the nine men who were sitting on the Supreme court at the time, delicately discussing the ins-and-outs of the female reproductive system. Four of whom were having affairs with much younger women at the time. This part of the play culminates with a description of Schreck’s own unplanned pregnancy. 

The lightning round commences when a contemporary fifteen-year-old comes on stage. What begins is a parliamentary debate, where the audience is encouraged to hoot and holler. The audience also sits as judge. The question for the debate, should the US Constitution be abolished or not. Schreck draws from a jar the side arguing for keeping the constitution. What ensues is a rollicking, thoughtful, humorous and polite discussion that eventually culminates with Schreck losing and the audience voting to abolish the Constitution and begin again. As the credits roll we learn that this debate had already occurred hundreds of times, with both parties in turn arguing both sides, with varying degrees of success.

I guess that this explains their practiced perfection. As of writing, it is not even certain that there will even be a presidential debate tonight. If one does occur there is no chance that it will be as educational and entertaining as Schreck’s. Readers of this post who still have time, it is not too late to change the channel.

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