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What the Constitution Means to Me - Serious Matters Explored in a Comedic Matrix

Tami Dixon in What the Constitution Means to Me Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

    If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you may have come across the story of Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren, nominated to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.

    At her recent confirmation hearing in the Senate, Senator John Kennedy, D-La., asked her to explain Articles 5 and 2 of the U.S. Constitution, but Bjelkengren was unable to answer the question. If a judge nominated to a federal court can’t provide information on some of the basics of the Constitution, how little must the general public know about its content, other than, perhaps, a scant familiarity with the Second Amendment and maybe the First.

    Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and actress, Heidi Schreck, seems to have really done her homework when writing What the Constitution Means to Me, now getting a run at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side. In the play, she explores how the document governing the nation has impacted both her life and that of her ancestors as well as society in general. It’s both a macrocosmic and microcosmic scenario.

    The largely autobiographic play starts off at an American Legion post somewhere near Schreck’s childhood home in Wenatchee, Washington. There she remembers herself as a fifteen-year-old making the legion circuit earning prize money for college by discussing the Constitution and its effect on her personal life.

    She’s shown as a headstrong girl with opinions to share standing in the middle of the stage backed by an assortment of colorful flags. There, she’s watched carefully by an elderly legionnaire (Ken Bolden) who monitors her every move seated in a chair at the far end of the stage.

    As befits a young teenager, the script, at this point, has a jejune flavor but it also has its insights into the Constitution, explaining the importance, for instance, of the Ninth Amendment, which recognizes implied rights of citizens beyond those specifically enumerated in the document.

    Yes, you’ll learn a lot about the Constitution in the play, but not in a stuffy, dry or academic way. Schreck has a knack for comedy and humor, which is interlaced within her narrative.

    The play, which has four parts if I counted right, moves on to where we see Schreck as a 42-year-old, where the tone gets more serious and thought-provoking. The playwright narrates stories of her family, back to the days of her immigrant great-grandmother, many of which tell tales of domestic abuse, an unwelcome sexual encounter, the possibility of an abortion, of sexual harassment set against a constitution and government that fails to protect them.

    Unfortunately, Tami Dixon, who plays Schreck in the City Theatre’s production, speeds up her delivery when talking about specific sections of the Constitution to the point where I had to strain to keep up with her monologue. Whether this was the choice of director, Marc Masterson, or a collaborative decision with the actress, I cannot say.

    Dixon is absolutely captivating in what is largely a one-woman show. Her energy, confidence, poise and ability to engage with her audience is amazing. She’s all over the stage, changing moods as called for, sad and angry when retelling startling anecdotes about her and her family’s experiences or spewing out stats such as the ones that claims that 10 million women live in violent households and that four women are murdered each day by their male partner.

    At other times, she glows with wit and humor, at ease and relishing the experience of being on stage. She seems the perfect fit for the playwright’s penchant for including interactive moments in which the audience is drawn into the play.

Ken Bolden as the Legionnaire Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover.

    One non sequitur to watch out for is an all too brief vignette in which the legionnaire steps into the fray, giving Dixon a short respite from her performance. Bolden is absolutely stellar in the way he unfolds his story, a completely unexpected tale that compliments Schreck’s focus on women’s rights by shedding light on an allied issue affecting another of America’s minorities.

    In another nod to audience interaction, in what I deem the play’s fourth part, the play takes a radical departure with a lively discussion between Dixon and Lamees Subeir, a debate champion from North Allegheny High School. The two take opposite positions on whether or not it’s a valid idea to abolish and rewrite the Constitution. While they expound on the pros and cons of each side of the issue, the audience is asked to respond with applause and shouts of approval when they hear something they agree with, or boo and hiss when something rankles them,

    As an aside, I remember one pundit, (it must be 40 years ago), who saw the need to rewrite what he saw as an antiquated governing document. At the time, I was shocked to hear such a revolutionary idea. This was even before the Bush-Gore and Trump-Clinton elections in which the candidate with the largest popular vote total actually lost the election and before the Electoral College shenanigans of the 2020 presidential election.

    Many people who see the show might be uncomfortable with the way the playwright creates four different, experientially diverse segments to her 90-minute-long play. It was a new experience for me to see this rare form of play craft, but as one who relishes novelty, I had no problem with it.

    The author certainly gives us plenty of what’s all too often called food for thought. But with a skillful hand, she also entertains and provides plenty of humor and levity. It’s enough to make me want to see the play again, or, at least, check out the film of the same title on Amazon Prime Video, in which the playwright stars as the main character.

    What the Constitution Means to Me, is at City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side, through February 12. For tickets and more information, phone 412-431-4400 or visit website


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