The long national nightmare of the past four years may not be over, but as the happy pandemonium that erupted this past weekend over the announcement of the Biden/Harris victory clearly demonstrated, a lot of us think there might be a light at the end of the tunnel that isn't an oncoming train. (No offense to the president-elect and his well-documented love of the choo-choos.) As I was dining on my cuticles awaiting the election results last week, I also saw two different streaming productions that explained a little bit about how we got here.
In The Spin, a world premiere online play written and directed by Spenser Davis for Interrobang Theatre Project, we see the sausage being made, after a fashion, in a Zoom strategy session involving a team of political "spin doctors" for the mayor of an unnamed American city. The city's public works director, Mike Bridges, has been arrested on charges of possession of child pornography and is under house arrest, and the question of just who knew what and when about this story hangs in the air. The PR firm also represented Bridges until the news broke, and Deirdre (Elana Elyce), one of the company's top honchos, had been seen dining in public with him right before the pandemic pushed everyone into shutdown.
That's not the only personal relationship complicating matters: Lorne (Matthew Martinez Hannon), Deirdre's lieutenant and the host of the meeting, has a tangled history with KC (Laura Berner Taylor), the mayor's spokeswoman who is being prepped for an on-camera interview about the scandal. When asked why KC seems to hate him, Lorne responds caustically, "Because she's a witch. I stole magic beans from her garden." And during the interview, a possibly incriminating detail about the mayor's college friendship with Bridges comes out.
Davis's production uses the framework of the online world better than many other Zoom productions I've seen in the past few months. In the background, we see Lorne's desktop, featuring tabs for articles with tantalizing titles like "Pedophilia: is there a duty to report?" and folders for other projects the team mentions. As the 50-minute show shifts to the interview between KC and news reporter Paul McGuire (Tom Dacey Carr)—for which KC is wearing an earpiece and being fed advice from Deirdre—we also see the Zoom chat channel for the team, crackling with snarky and sinister wit.
In addition to Lorne and Deirdre, there's Salar Ardebili's doofusy Clark (of whom Lorne says, "I don't trust him to remember his own food allergies") and Sarah Gise's social media whiz April, who takes one of KC's on-air zingers and turns it into an Internet meme in minutes. Some of this reminds me of Bob Newhart's famous "telephone" routine, "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue," where honest Abe, about to make the Gettysburg Address, checks in with a flack, who dissuades him from shaving his beard and is exasperated that the president has typed out his speech. ("Abe, how many times have we told you? On the backs of envelopes!")
The fact that the action unfolds in real time adds a sense of urgency, if not depth, to the show. These are people who are inherently reactive and in damage control mode all the time. If they ever had higher aspirations around public service, they've long since abandoned them by the wayside. But though The Spin focuses more on the minute-to-minute drama, it does touch on deeper evergreen issues, such as guilt by association in the public sphere. (Did someone say "Jeffrey Epstein?")
Lorne tells Deirdre, "Just because our friends turn out to be bad people, that doesn't make us bad people." True. But how one reacts to finding out the truth about friends and colleagues is the real mark of character, or lack thereof. Davis suggests that those who spend too much time on the political merry-go-round lose their grounding center far too easily. Of course, if the last four years are anything to go on, a lot of them never had a core to begin with.
What the Constitution Means to Me
On the other hand, defending the republic, if not individual politicians, has never felt more vital. It also feels crucial to understand the down-to-the-bone reasons for how we got here—"here" being a country where someone can win about five million more votes for the highest office and still have it framed as a "close" election. Or win three million more votes and still not get elected.
I can't imagine a better guide right now to the national roadmap of jurisprudence and human rights (which are far from the same thing) than Heidi Schreck and What the Constitution Means to Me.
Schreck's 2017 play moved from off Broadway to Broadway in 2019, and was a finalist that year for the Pulitzer in drama. It was in Chicago this past March in a touring production starring Maria Dizzia. I was all set to see it the weekend of March 13 until . . . well, you know. If you were similarly thwarted, help is at hand: Schreck's performance from the final week of the show's Broadway run, directed by Oliver Butler, is now available through Amazon Prime. (Marielle Heller filmed the show.)
Schreck, a native of Washington state, made money for college by engaging in debates on the U.S. Constitution at various American Legion posts. The show reimagines one of those debates as the framework for Schreck to examine her history alongside that of the women in her family (which includes domestic violence and abortion) and of marginalized people throughout the history of the nation.
It's far from a dry lecture, though Schreck plays up her youthful enthusiasm for the Constitution with nerd-girl charm to burn, set in delicious contrast to Mike Iveson's choleric Legion rep. (Iveson gets his own chance to share his personal story as a gay man later in the show.)
In particular, she focuses on the Ninth Amendment: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Schreck recalls that Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called it a "penumbra" when he cited it in establishing a right to marital privacy and contraception in 1965's Griswold v. Connecticut. On the other hand, late Justice Antonin Scalia, according to Schreck, "said he couldn't tell you what the Ninth Amendment meant if his life depended upon it. [beat] Which I guess his didn't."
In one of the more chilling segments, Schreck recounts the case of Jessica Lenahan Gonzales, a woman in Castle Rock, Colorado, who had filed an order of protection against her estranged husband and whose children were abducted and killed by him after the local police failed to enforce the order. She subsequently sued the police department and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005. We hear the audio from the oral arguments where the justices debate the meaning of the word "shall." Ultimately, Scalia's majority opinion held that enforcing such orders wasn't mandatory for the cops. As Schreck explains, this case has a ripple effect that calls into question all legal protections for vulnerable people—presumably, the people that police forces are supposed to care about in the first place.
The final section of the play brings in a next-gen constitutional whiz: Rosdely Ciprian, a high school parliamentary debater who goes toe to toe with Schreck on the question of whether the Constitution should be abolished or amended. On the night this performance was filmed, Ciprian took the "abolish" side, as determined by a coin toss, and post-2016, her line "How can we expect to make any progress when the Electoral College is a hot mess?" hits with painful accuracy.
But though it may feel that our own futures hang on an electoral coin toss (or the whims of SCOTUS justices installed by a sociopath), What the Constitution Means to Me also provides a glimmer of hope. A document that was never intended to cover everyone in this country at its inception (just white landowning males, thanks) can grow and change and mature, given enough time. After all, our soon-to-be vice president is Black, Asian, and female—a state of affairs our slaveholder and slaveholder-apologist founders couldn't have foreseen.
We just have to hope we have enough time. v