Ever since I attended Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theatre Workshop in the fall of 2018, I knew I wanted Stefany, my 17-year-old niece, to see it (she’s my first cousin’s eldest daughter and a first generation American). With the show transferring to Broadway, where it opened on March 31, 2019, I was finally granted an opportunity to bring her.
In the play, Schreck draws from her experience to show the ways in which the Constitution has shaped her life. As a teenager she took part in constitutional debate contests which helped her pay for college, as a young woman the document gave her the liberty to make decisions about her body without the permission of elderly white men. Now, in her “mid to late 40s,” she’s concerned with how the Constitution both provides and deprives people of color, immigrants, and other underrepresented people with basic human rights.
I was slightly worried references to Dirty Dancing and Annie Lennox would have my niece rolling her eyes and wanting to run away and “snap” or do Instagram stories, the fear people from a certain generation have of younger people not loving the thing they find so cool. But my fears were dispelled when I realized she was having a fantastic time. Afterward, we went for chicken wings and coffee (not at the same time) and spent hours talking about the play’s infallible structure, the humor, and how much she loved Rosdely Ciprian, the young African American debater Shreck brings onstage during the last part of the show. I realized people ought to hear what she had to say, so here are snippets from our conversation.
But before that, here’s Stefany in her own words:
Stefany Quiroz is a junior in high school, where she writes for the newspaper, edits at the writing center, and is part of the Student Outreach department of Junior Caucus. She tutors with No One Left Behind and works as a peer educator at a teen health clinic. She loves her cell phone, baleadas, and Netflix.
Stefany: Jose, what was something you took away from the play considering everything going on in the news?
Jose: It’s strange because the show is so timely that one would think it would make you want to pull off your hair and set yourself on fire, but watching this show I can’t help but feel that there is hope because there are women leading the way. This was my third encounter with it though, so I’m curious to know what was your first reaction?
Stefany: At first it was mostly shock. Even though I’m learning about the Constitution and US history in class now, the curriculum mostly glosses over the oppression and flaws of the document. So seeing it broken down and traced back through history and realizing all the oppression and dehumanization it brought, gave me a new perspective that we don’t learn in school. Furthermore, seeing that these flaws still exist today is scary because it seems like no progress is being made or that it’s just an oppressive cycle that continues. At the same time, the show gave me hope, especially during the debate with Ciprian because it was kind of a call to action. We can rewrite a future that’s diverse and female, not led by the same old white men.
Jose: You’re involved in your school government. What does “taking action” look like to you after seeing the play?
Stefany: The majority of my school government’s leadership positions are held by white people, and this pushes people from underrepresented groups from considering applying (I didn’t actually pursue the idea of applying until this year since I saw the same people on there, but I’m personally starting to consider a leadership role for next year). I think the first step to take action would be to encourage more people of color to get involved and have them understand that that can be them. Another thing for me would be to stop being so passive and begin to speak up, without being afraid of being ganged up on by the white leaders. Most of the time this is scary, but I realize that no positive changes can be made if your voice isn’t heard.
Jose: In the play, Heidi Schreck makes a point of how often men silence women, sometimes even using the law, did the play teach you about ways in which to overcome this?
Stefany: The scene where her mother testified against her stepfather was where I learned that in order to not be silenced and let men get away with abuse, you have to speak up. Even if you think you’re too young or that it’s scary. If you’re better educated on the law it’s infuriating to see anyone trying to silence you. It makes you want to take action even more, whether in a legal way like taking someone to court, or even in a modern way like taking them to social media.
Jose: I usually stay away from didactic shows, but like you, I learned so much from this play. How do you think Schreck achieves the balance between delivering the world’s best civics lesson and also being extremely entertaining? Cause you were entertained right? I was so happy to hear you laughing throughout the show.
Stefany: Yes I was! I was thinking about it afterward, how if anyone else was to give a lesson in Schreck’s style, it would have turned into some kind of boring lecture, but that was completely not the case for this show. I think she achieves this balance by breaking down the Constitution in a way that didn’t sound like she was lecturing, but more like she was talking directly to you. The fact that she used her personal anecdotes along with sarcasm and a lot of jokes really got some of her main points across too, without letting us lose sight of how the Constitution relates to our lives.
Jose: If you could send your teachers to see the show, what would you hope they got out of it in order to become better educators?
Stefany: I’d hope that it’d make them realize that they need to focus more on the flaws of this document since that’s something we don’t frequently learn or talk about in class. I know the show would serve in educating my classmates. In the many years I’ve been in school, only one History teacher has made modern-day connections to history in order to show us how it can repeat itself.
Jose: Besides your teachers, what people in your life would you like to bring to the show? And why?
Stefany: I would bring my friends and classmates because I think it’d be very beneficial for them to learn more about the history of the Constitution and its long-lasting effects. It’d also help them realize that change needs to take place. I’d definitely also bring the entire student government, in the hopes it’d make them reconsider their positions and realize how little diversity there is amongst them, leading to more inclusive elections. They should be open to hearing ideas from all students even if it means some of these ideas go against their own.
Jose: The show is a love letter to Schreck’s mom, did it make you think about your mom and other women in your family?
Stefany: Definitely, especially when she talked about survivor’s guilt. It made me think about the many sacrifices my mom made just for me to have a chance at a better life than she did. I felt guilty that she didn’t get the same opportunities I did and isn’t living out her dream. When Schreck talked about her mom, it also made me appreciate mine a lot more because it reminded me of what a strong woman she is, and how she is constantly pushing forward.
Jose: I’m sure she’d love to hear that! As a young woman of color, what did you think about the representation in the show and at the theater?
Stefany: I loved the fact that the teenager debating Schreck was a woman of color, since you don’t usually see minorities getting prominent roles like that in theater, and it made me feel represented since she was around my age as well. However, as for representation at the theater, it was sad and angering to see everyone was older and mostly white, except for literally the two of us. During the debate between Ciprian and Schreck, I noticed we were the only ones in our row cheering for Ciprian, while all the white people were on the other team. I really hope representation in the theater changes – and changes fast – to allow more people like myself to have the opportunity to see these kinds of shows and be able to write and voice our opinions on them without being a super small percentage.
Jose: Amen. Taking a page from the show, where do you see yourself in 50 years?
Stefany: OK, so I’ll be 67, and even though I don’t know what career path I want to take yet I know it involves helping others and giving back to the community. Whether I become a lawyer, journalist, psychologist or an activist, I will have started an organization that provides resources and education to underprivileged people and people of color while also advocating for them, and shed light on issues that go unnoticed. As for my personal life, I hope that I’m married and live in a nice, big house, and have kids and grandkids. I will also have a dog because I’ve always wanted one, but most important of all, I’ll be happy.
For tickets and more information on What the Constitution Means to Me visit the official website.