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Broadway play reexamines the U.S. Constitution
Hari Sreenivasan: There's a lot of talk these days about how divided the United States is politically, and that division includes the various ways Americans interpret the U.S. Constitution. A new play recently opened on Broadway that asks some very hard questions about our country's founding document. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has the story.
Heidi Schreck: When I was 15 years old, I would travel the country giving speeches about the Constitution at American Legion halls for prize money. This was a scheme invented by my mom to help me pay for college.
Ivette Feliciano: Ten years ago, writer and actor Heidi Schreck began to write a play that recreates a very influential time in her life. That play, "What the Constitution Means to Me," opened on Broadway this past March.
Heidi Schreck: I was actually able to pay for my entire college education this way. Thank you. Thank you. It was 30 years ago and it was a state school, but thank you.
Heidi Schreck: I loved the Constitution as a teenager. I was a debate nerd. I also remembered it as a time where I felt very powerful as a young woman giving speeches. I think it was, like, sort of the moment I began to step into my own power as a woman.
Ivette Feliciano: But Schreck also remembers that the audience she was speaking to contained very few women.
Ivette Feliciano: You talk about in the play remembering how most of the audience was older white men.
Heidi Schreck: Yes.
Ivette Feliciano: Why was that significant to you, and why did you wanna point that out?
Heidi Schreck: Well, it was true to my experience as a teenager. I grew up in Washington State, a very small, very conservative town. So I both wanted to make that part of the play because it was true to my experience and also because it feels true to the larger experience, which is, how do we speak these truths about a document that originally was written for these people, these cis, white, straight men?
Ivette Feliciano: Schreck's play is about the people the Constitution wasn't written for. It also looks at the struggle to win rights not specifically included by the Founding Fathers. One tool in this fight was the Bill of Rights' Ninth Amendment.
Heidi Schreck: Amendment Nine says: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Do you know what this means? It means just because a certain right is not listed in the Constitution, it doesn't mean you don't have that right. The fact is there was no way for the framers to put down every single right we have. I mean, the right to brush your teeth, yes, you've got it, but how long do we want this document to be?
Heidi Schreck: This amendment sort of holds a space to say there are things we don't know yet, and you can use this amendment to fight for rights that are not explicitly listed in the Constitution.
Heidi Schreck: Our Constitution doesn't tell you all the rights that you have, because it doesn't know!
Ivette Feliciano: "What the Constitution Means to Me" explores how the Ninth Amendment helped establish a right to privacy, which led to women gaining the right to birth control and, eventually, abortion rights. Schreck is quick to distinguish those so-called "positive" rights from what jurists have termed the "negative" rights of the Constitution.
Heidi Schreck: In the simplest terms, negative rights protect us from the government. They tell us what the government can't do. Our document was designed primarily to be a negative rights document, to give us the most possible individual liberty and to protect us from the government interfering in our lives. Positive rights are active rights. They include things like the right to an education -- in some countries, the right to healthcare.
Ivette Feliciano: And so why is it so important to point that out within the context of the play?
Heidi Schreck: It's important to me because in my 10 years of study, I started to realize that negative rights are helpful, obviously, because we wanna be protected from the possible tyranny of government but that they're most helpful to the people who are already in power. They are most helpful to people whose rights are already protected.
Heidi Schreck: I believe we need a brand new positive rights document that actively rectifies the inequality at the heart of this country. I believe we need a document that protects all of us, because why? Why should most of us be banished to the margins of the constitution? Why should we be on page 30? On page 34? Or not even in this document at all because we're kids? We all belong in the preamble. Thank you.
Heidi Schreck: I think I realized that the thing that we praise so much about this document, its neutrality, is not enough for most of us. It doesn't protect most of us the way it should.
Ivette Feliciano: Schreck says that while writing the play, she began to question whether or not the Constitution should be rewritten altogether. The first step toward that would be to scrap the one we have. To that end, she concludes her work with a scene in which she matches wits with an actual high school debater. The topic? "Should the United States Constitution be abolished?"
Thursday Williams: If we abolish the constitution, we risk sending the country into complete chaos. Our country's more divided than it has ever been. The only thing holding us together as Americans right now is the faith in this document. We may choose -- we may choose to interpret it differently, but without it, we risk complete collapse.
Ivette Feliciano: Do you actually believe that the constitution has outlived its usefulness?
Heidi Schreck: No. I still have a fundamental faith in the document. I think it needs to be amended. And I don't know how we do that right now given how divided the country is. I believe the document gives us what we need to make this country better. But it's gonna require a lot of work on our parts.