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Charlotte high schoolers on 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

Cassie Beck performs in the touring production of 'What the Constitution Means to Me,' playing at Charlotte's Knight Theater February 15 - 20, 2022.
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Cassie Beck performs in the touring production of 'What the Constitution Means to Me,' playing at Charlotte's Knight Theater February 15 - 20, 2022.

The Tony-nominated play 'What the Constitution Means to Me' opened in Charlotte's Knight Theater this week, telling the autobiographical story of writer and actress Heidi Schreck and her soul-searching critique of the U.S. Constitution.

As a high schooler, Schreck toured the country winning constitutional debate challenges. She won enough to pay her college tuition.

But in the play, her feelings about the Constitution grow more complicated as she grows older and learns what little protection the document seemed to offer herself and other women in her family, as well as other groups of people in American history.

Who does the Constitution really serve? Who does it help and hurt? Would we be better off getting rid of it and starting over from scratch?

The show poses these questions and debates them outright in the final portion of the play: a live debate between the main actress, Cassie Beck, and a real-life high school debate student, Jocelyn Shrek.

This week, a Charlotte high school debate team from Ardrey Kell High School was invited by Blumenthal Performing Arts to watch the show as a group.

Two of its members — seniors Mikaela Anthony and Aditi Sengupta, both debate team captains — later spoke with WFAE's Nick de la Canal about what resonated with them, and what ideas it got them thinking about.

On what big ideas they left the theater thinking about:

Aditi Sengupta: I think it was fascinating how the show really showed everybody that the Constitution — a living, breathing document created a long time ago — is interconnected to all of us simply in the fact that it governs the laws that we all exist within. So I think it's really nice how she draws those personal connections, not only showing how the competition of the Constitution would have asked her to show how she loves it, but also how it deeply impacts everybody.

Mikaela Anthony: I came away really thinking about a lot of the issues she brought up, and the different points that she made, and I thought she did a really good job interspersing the different statistics and heavy, weighted discussions about things like violence against women and different minority rights with a lot of comedic relief that allowed me to both enjoy the play and the story it told, but also think more deeply about things like positive rights and what we want our Constitution to be.

Ardrey Kell High School seniors Aditi Sengupta, left, and Mikaela Anthony.
Ardrey Kell High School seniors Aditi Sengupta, left, and Mikaela Anthony.

On one of the show's central questions: Is the U.S. Constitution good or bad?

Anthony: I think the Constitution is a good thing, in general, to outline how our government works and give us a foundation of rights, but I think there definitely is room for growth in our Constitution. I think we need to think about amendments and what we want it to continue to be as we move forward.

Sengupta: I don't think a document so complex and so powerful can be narrowed down into good and bad. I think there's definitely great things about it that protect a lot of citizens, and like Mikaela said, there's a lot of room for growth in how we can continue to use the Constitution in our ever-evolving society.

Another big question posed by the show: should we abolish the U.S. Constitution? What do you think?

Sengupta: I think that those debaters in the show yesterday made some great points. I think there's something to be said for the fact that the Constitution currently does provide some protections and to completely get rid of those would be a risky move. So maybe abolishing it might not be the next step just yet.

Anthony: I agree that we should keep the Constitution. What really resonated with me was one of the points that the high school debater made, which was that our issues with the Constitution oftentimes aren't necessarily about the document, but about how it's implemented and how people in power use it. And so I think the idea that we need to reframe and maybe redefine how we use the Constitution, amend the document, kind of look at what we'd want our government to look like going forward is a really good idea.

Cassie Beck and Jocelyn Shek in the North American Tour of "What the Constitution Means to Me."
Joan Marcus
Cassie Beck and Jocelyn Shek in the North American Tour of "What the Constitution Means to Me."

If you had the power to amend the Constitution, what would you add or change?

Sengupta: I think after yesterday's show, I would have to say the Equal Rights Amendment. I think that especially in society as we have it today, there needs to be greater protections for all sexes, and how we function and how we see them in the eyes of the law. So I think the Equal Rights Amendment is worth taking another look at, because I think there needs to be some greater protection for women in the Constitution.

Anthony: I agree the Equal Rights Amendment is important. Another one I think I would think about adding is maybe having term limits on the Supreme Court. I think one of the big things the play highlighted is how sometimes these Supreme Court decisions are really important, and they don't necessarily evolve with the times as well as maybe we would hope them to.

On what big issues the country faces that they hope to address as they get older:

Sengupta: I think an issue that I find incredibly important in today's political climate and society is voter rights, and how we deal with voter suppression. I think it's incredibly important that when we say we are a democracy in which everybody's voices are heard, that's something we hold true and we actively work towards creating. So I would believe that an issue that needs to be looked at now definitely would be how we deal with voter suppression.

Anthony: I think one of the big issues I'm passionate about and would like to take forward is definitely looking at climate change and our environment. In college, I'm hoping to major in environmental science. I think a big thing about the climate issue is not just about protecting the environment, but it's also about things like climate justice and who has access to resources, who lives in polluted areas, and trying to make the environment better for everyone, and also make sure that certain groups and different marginalized communities have protections.

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Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal