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Constitutions and utopias: What America means to me in the dawn of a new era

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When I sat down to write this article at the end of October, I failed to put pen to paper.

I was hoping to review “What the Constitution Means to Me” and “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” two new stage-to-screen adaptations that, in their own ways, explore what it means to be an American. But in anticipation of what turned out to be a turbulent, history-making presidential election, I was unsure what America would look like in just a few days.

As I sit here writing now, Joe Biden’s victory speech feels like eons ago, and yet I feel no more certain about what America is. I waited for the election to be over, hoping the outcome would give me some clarity. It has, and hasn’t.

At its core, I suppose America was born out of the Constitution. To me, the Constitution has always been an abstract force, a sacred document existing outside the human realm. In “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Heidi Schreck makes this Constitution tangible and personal. The Pulitzer-nominated play, written by and starring Schreck and directed for the screen by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), is smartly and empathetically constructed. Schreck begins as her 15-year-old self, buoyant and girlish, re-enacting her winning constitutional debate speeches. But midway through the show, she drops these pretenses of enthusiasm because, first, her face “just fucking hurts from smiling like that,” and second, she broaches topics — like abortion, sexual assault and domestic violence — that only her current self has the perspective and life experience to understand.

Schreck deftly weaves personal anecdotes and her family history through a crash course in constitutional law, connecting our founding document’s dry, formal language to lived trauma and pain. Moreover, Schreck recognizes her privilege as a white woman and acknowledges the additional obstacles BIPOC, LGBTQ+ folks, immigrants and disabled people have to face. This is not mere lip service, as Schreck scraps the expected one-woman play format to engage the voices of others: a gay man who is also negatively affected by the patriarchy, and a young teenager of color whom she invites on stage in the show’s final half-hour to debate whether to abolish and re-write the U.S. Constitution (to be clear, in favor of a positive rights document that would oblige political leaders to protect their constituents — not for the dissolution of people’s sovereignty). The fact that Schreck ends her play on this open question is a testament to her humility — she doesn’t pretend to have the answers to the difficult and salient questions she raises.

These are questions that have remained relevant over the years that Schreck has performed the play. “Constitution” first premiered off-Broadway in late 2018, amid Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearings and Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual-assault testimony. Today, our sitting president is a documented misogynist and has been accused by 26 women of sexual misconduct or assault. And our president-elect, though he has since apologized for his actions, has his history of silencing the voices of survivors: as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman during Anita Hill’s 1991 sexual harassment testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Biden “allowed Thomas to testify before Hill” and “did not take testimony from three women who offered their own stories about Thomas.”

Given this context, as well as Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and the rise in domestic violence during COVID-19, the show remains just as timely. When Schreck broadcasts a message from Ruth Bader Ginsburg — “People ask me sometimes, ‘When … will there be enough women on the court?’ And my answer is, ‘When there are nine’” — it hits hard. Really hard. I wonder if Schreck’s play will ever not be relevant.

While “Constitution” demands its audience’s attention and appeals to their intellectual side, “David Byrne’s American Utopia” asks viewers to lose themselves in the music. A sonically stunning concert film, “American Utopia” — adapted for the screen by the inimitable Spike Lee — delves into similar themes as “Constitution,” but in an entirely different manner. Talking Heads frontman Byrne speaks very little throughout the show; instead, his songs tap into feelings, the sensory and the visceral.

Byrne and his stellar band create a truly electric energy that can be felt through the screen. In a thrilling sequence, Byrne presents his band one-by-one — the song begins in silence, with each musician joining successively as introduced by Byrne — allowing the audience to peek under the hood and proving that, indeed, just the handful of band members on stage are producing sounds of such beauty and magnitude.

Byrne himself boasts a resonant, crystal-clear, pitch-perfect, almost vibratoless voice. The flawlessness of his vocal quality evokes a sense of detachment; even Byrne admits, when he sings “Everybody’s coming to my house / And I’m never gonna be alone,” that it reads as a reluctant invitation, not one of warmth and hospitality. But this quality paradoxically imbues Byrne’s lyrics with even more spirit. In the haunting “Bullet,” Byrne narrates the titular projectile’s path through a man’s body: “The bullet went into him / It went its merry way / Like an old gray dog / On a fox’s trail” — a chilling personification of the banality of violence.

One of Byrne’s last numbers is a cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a protest song against police brutality that derives power from its simplicity. It is here that Lee makes his presence known, with dolly shots of family members holding pictures of loved ones taken by police violence, as Byrne and his band members call us to “say his name” and “say her name.” Lee also includes photographs of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, whose deaths occurred after the show’s filming, before filling the entire screen with names in bright red text — an incomplete list concluding with “AND TOO MANY MORE.”

Both “Constitution” and “American Utopia,” available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video and HBO Max, respectively, open up the world of theater to new audiences, democratizing an art form usually reserved for rich urban dwellers. When “American Utopia” ran on Broadway earlier this year before the coronavirus hit, its average ticket price was upward of $200. And although Heller and Lee both do admirable jobs of immersing viewers at home in the action, they cannot replicate the theatrical experience. While something is thrilling about seeing and hearing an audience in both films, I missed the spontaneity and risk of live theater, of knowing that anything could happen even if I’d seen the show before. Being in a theater requires one to be fully present — there’s no pause or rewind button.

I worry about the future of the performing arts. Broadway won’t reopen until June at the earliest. And, as much as I enjoyed both of these productions, they also remind me that live performances and screen adaptations are not fungible.

I worry about the future of America, too. In Kamala Harris’ acceptance speech, she declared that the American people had chosen “hope, unity, decency, science and, yes, truth.” I was happy and relieved when she said that, but I don’t believe that it’s a fair encapsulation of an election that illuminated just how deep the chasm is in our politics. The issues raised in both “Constitution” and “American Utopia” — gender violence, police brutality, immigration reform — will not be magically resolved with a change of office.

I hope that we’ll find a way to balance the accessibility of theater and the magic of live entertainment. I hope that, somehow, we’ll be able to bridge our divisions.

Schreck and Byrne remind me that this hope is not blind. Hope is not complacency, not waiting for and expecting something to happen. Hope is knocking on doors and seeing the humanity of the other side; it’s an assertion that something will happen — because our belief and our willingness to plow ahead are strong enough.

Hope is an action.

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Staff Writer, DEI Team Co-Chair
Jared Klegar ’24 writes for Arts & Life and co-chairs the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team. An English major, misplaced modifiers are among his biggest pet peeves. Contact him at jklegar 'at' stanforddaily.com.