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A new Broadway production, "What the Constitution Means to Me," is taking a fresh look at the founding document: what it says, who it serves and who it doesn’t. The play’s author and lead actor reexamines the rights laid out in the Constitution and how her own life relates to it. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But Schreck also remembers that the audience she was speaking to contained very few women.
You talk about in the play remembering how most of the audience was older white men.
Why was that significant to you, and why did you wanna point that out?
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?
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.
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?
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.
Our Constitution doesn't tell you all the rights that you have, because it doesn't know!
"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.
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.
And so why is it so important to point that out within the context of the play?
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
Do you actually believe that the constitution has outlived its usefulness?
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.
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Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
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