The Huntington’s Terrific ‘What The Constitution Means to Me’ Is A Timely Romp Through Murky Waters

Cassie Beck in the Huntington’s ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre. Photos: Joan Marcus

by Shelley A. Sackett

What The Constitution Means to Me asks us to think about and get personal with the US Constitution, and that request couldn’t come at a more timely moment. It seems that hallowed document is front and center in our daily lives, whether we invite it or not. We read the news and, while we were aware Trump was shredding the Constitution with the hope it could never be pieced back together again, we now have to wonder — did he also flush it down the toilet?

We browse news of the Supreme Court’s latest actions and can’t help shivering at how the majority of the chief enforcers of our alleged democracy seem hell-bent on following his lead, emboldening those who would discriminate, marginalize and disenfranchise.

Which is why the Constitution is something I — and I’m sure I’m not alone — have thought about a lot lately.

Jocelyn Shek, Mike Iveson and Beck

That experience cemented a deep love for and knowledge of the document she unapologetically venerated until she realized, as she grew older and the rose tint of her glasses faded, that its authors’ intentions were more repressive than liberating.

The spectacularly talented Cassie Beck channels Heidi, and she is a powerhouse and marvel to witness. She is a consummate storyteller, appearing extemporaneous and almost ditzy at times as she methodically lays the groundwork for some heady conclusions. She addresses the audience with warmth, humor and honesty, whether playing her 15-year-old or 41-year-old self. She confesses of late she has been troubled by an unanswered question: what was it she had loved so much about the Constitution when she was a teenager?

For the next hour of the 105-minute intermission-less production, Heidi/Cassie wanders through the Constitution, exposing its flaws and malevolent intent with stories from her own family and from Supreme Court cases. (Authentic recordings of actual Supreme Court hearings add a compelling touch). She highlights how the Framers — all white male property owners — deliberately omitted reference to anyone else when they drafted the Constitution meant to provide equal protection under the laws of the land that document would rule.


The Constitution, she points out, “was designed to protect the men who made it and their property — which was sometimes people — from the government.”

This has resulted in sanctioned violence against generations of Native Americans, people of color and women, including her own mother, whose first memory of her stepfather was him socking her mother in the face.

Along for the ride, we learn quite a bit about the Constitution in a way that is not at all reminiscent of law school. Schreck’s understanding and appreciation of that document is deep, and her script transforms complicated concepts into easily relatable vignettes. She tells story after story about women in particular who, she notes, aren’t even acknowledged as existing until the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920. “What does it mean if the Constitution doesn’t protect women?” she bemoans. By way of tragic example, she shares her own mother’s and grandmothers’ stories of heart-wrenching abuse, allowed by “centuries of laws that told them they were worthless.”

Later, after treating the audience to her primal scream/howling sob — her instinctive coping mechanism against rage and despair that has chased away more than a few boyfriends — she wonders aloud, ”Maybe this is just the appropriate response to everything right now?” That line drew thunderous applause.

Beck, Iverson

Lest this paint a dark and pedantic image of this dazzling production, be assured that there are as many moments of hilarity and lightness as there are of stark reckoning. Teenage Heidi doesn’t only love the Constitution; she also loves Patrick Swayze, magic spells and making out with boys. Beck is charming and engaging, and the physicality and expressiveness of her acting chops is as mesmerizing as it is enjoyable. This is Broadway-quality acting at our own back door.

The last 15 minutes of the show unfortunately break the mood and shift the pace. They are devoted to a debate about whether the Constitution should be scrapped or tweaked. A parliamentary debater, Emilyn Toffler, a 17-year-old Californian — who was annoyingly difficult to hear and understand — joined Beck on stage. The audience received pocket-sized copies of the Constitution (a nice party favor) and, after listening to both sides, was asked to vote whether to preserve the US Constitution as written or scrap it and start over. “It is because of the Constitution, not in spite of it, that we can have this debate,” said Toffler, who was arguing for preservation. In the end, the representative audience member chosen at random to deliver the verdict, agreed.

And so, at least as of last Wednesday night’s performance, the Constitution remains the ruling document of the land. For more information and tickets, go to:

‘What the Constitution Means To Me’ — Written by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler; Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Michael Krass; Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by Sinan Refik Zafar. Presented by Huntington Theater Company at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre through March 20.

SpeakEasy’s ‘People, Places & Things’ Takes Us Into the Belly of Addiction

Marianna Bassham and the cast of People, Places & Things. Photos by Nile Scott Studios.

by Shelley A. Sackett

Like Jonah’s whale, addiction can swallow us whole. Unlike Jonah, however, who was freed after a mere three days of praying and repenting, those stuck in the belly of the addiction beast have a much tougher, longer and shakier road to hoe.

Some are up to the challenge and some crumble under the beast’s daunting weight. Some make it and some fake it. Some don’t know the difference and some could care less. And some will circle their self-destructive drain as long as they can, all the while ferociously denying they’re about to drown.

People, Places & Things, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s first-rate, must-see production, covers a lot of ground and checks a lot of boxes. Playwright Duncan Macmillan unsentimentally tackles the uncertain journey from addiction and recovery and the many shapes and forms it can take. For two and a half hours, the audience is in the thick of the raw process of rehab, detox, group therapy, relapse and the harrowing realization of what “one day at a time’ really looks like.

Nael Nacer, Bassham

If this sounds like a maudlin, predictable trope, it is anything but. Working with Macmillan’s sharp, incisive script, director David R. Gammons has created a phantasmagoria with flashing strobes (light design by Jeff Adelberg) and vibrating sounds (David Wilson) that make us feel like we are marching right beside these crumbling, addicted minds on the verge of self-destruction. He has also amassed a splendid ensemble cast to bring the script to life, most notably the exceptionally talented Marianna Bassham as Emma. Her performance alone is reason enough to high tail to BCA.

The play opens as a play within a play, with a backstage section with costumes and make up tables visible behind a curtain that bisects the sparse set. In the forefront, an area rug and furniture mark the set of Chekhov’s The Seagull, which the audience is plopped into as if dropped from a time machine. It is the final act and the main character Nina (played by Emma/Bassham) is on stage, holding a stuffed seagull and delivering a tragic speech. All seems normally Chekhovian until it becomes obvious that this Nina is completely out of it. She stumbles, blunders and eventually falls, taking the entire stage with her and plunging the set into darkness.

As the lights come back up, we are in the reception area for rehab and Emma is about to let us through the keyhole of what it means to live in her chaotic inner and outer world. The impossibly willowy Bassham is mesmerizing. Her staccato cadence and flawless timing, fluid physicality and frantic attempts to minimize the seriousness of her addiction are simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. Macmillan knows his way around clever dialogue and director Gammons has a powerhouse to deliver them in Bassham.

Kadahj Bennett, Bassham

The intake scenes with the Doctor (an excellent Adrianne Krstansky, who also plays the therapist and Emma’s mother) clue us in to the obstacles Emma will face on her road to recovery, which demands truthfulness as a non-negotiable first of 12 steps. She is an actress, we slowly realize, whose stage is both life and theater. The lines between acting and living her life have become so blurred that when she gives her name as “Nina,” her most recent role, we half believe she believes it.

In fact, she thinks she just needs “a tune up” and is only checking into rehab because no one will hire her unless she is certified as clean. This is all one colossal opportunity for her to both write the script and star in it. She’s not even willing to talk the talk, let alone walking the walk,  “Drugs and alcohol have never let me down,” she declares. “Addiction is a parasite. It will eat you until you’re dead,” the Doctor counters.

Once she is admitted, the bulk of the play is a behind-the-scenes look at residential rehab, from group therapy sessions to tragic relapse and back again. As always, the immensely talented Nael Nacer (Mark) is a standout. A fellow addict, he befriends Emma and holds her feet to the fire. He really cares about his recovery and he cares about her.

Mark has been around the rehab block and knows that recovery cannot happen without honesty, both with oneself and with others. Nacer brings confidence and decency to the role, a casual elegance that makes Mark seem genuine and transparent. He is the perfect foil to Emma’s desperate hiding behind defiance and lies. “If I’m not playing a character, I’m not sure I’m really there,” she finally admits.

There are moments of real surprise and pathos. In particular, a powerful scene when post-rehab Emma tries to make amends to her parents sheds unexpected light on the possible underlying reasons for Emma’s addictions and low self-esteem.

Macmillan has certainly given us plenty to chew on and posed some provocative, core questions. How do we make sense of a world that feels like it’s spinning out of control without self-medicating? How do we live an honest life in a world built on lies, where people reinvent themselves on social media and the “news” embraces alternative facts? How do we let go of control in the midst of chaos? How do we learn to love and be kind to ourselves? And, most importantly, how do we acknowledge those people, places and things that render us powerless over addiction — and then have the courage to leave them behind?

‘People, Places & Things’ — Written by Duncan Macmillan. Directed by David R. Gammon;, Scenic Design by Jeffrey Peterson; Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design by David Wilson, Video Design by Adam Stone. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at Boston Center for the Arts through March 5.

For more information and tickets, go to:

Music lifts the spirit at Congregation Shirat Hayam

Clockwise, from left: David Sparr, Jeremiah Klarman, Lautaro Mantilla, and Noam Sender

by Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT — Those who attend Holy Happy Hour and Saturday morning Renewal services know firsthand the beauty and grace four professional musicians bring to the experience. Some travel from afar; most also work in other congregations. Other than being musicians, the one thing they all share is their love for the welcoming Shirat Hayam community and its innovative approach.

“To walk into a job with a long roster of professional musicians already in place is such a gift,” said Cantor Sarah Freudenberger. “The history these musicians have in working with previous cantors and Rabbi Michael Ragozin, and the congregants knowing and loving them, is a great help to me as the new person in the mix. Each musician brings his own feelings and style, and our collaboration is special and new with every service.”

Pianist David Sparr, who lives in Nahant and joins Shirat at both services, has performed professionally for 47 of the 63 years he has been playing. He is music director at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline and also performs in jazz clubs, churches, synagogues, senior living facilities, and concert halls. He first came to Shirat through his acquaintance with Cantor Emil Berkovits z”l. The two performed together and Cantor Emil later recorded at David’s studio. He continued the connection with Shirat Hayam’s clergy.

“The spirit of the clergy and the welcoming embrace of the congregation always inspires me to perform at a high level,” he said.

Bostonian Jeremiah Klarman has played piano for 25 years and percussion for 15 years. He plays both at Shirat during Renewal services. He also plays at Temple Emanuel in Newton – where he is Artist in Residence – and recently started playing at an African Methodist Episcopal church. Other engagements have included weddings, concerts, and even accompanying an improv group.

Through a joint concert in 2017 at Temple Emanuel, Jeremiah met Cantor Elana Rozenfeld. She invited him to play for an event at Shirat. He joined her at Renewal service and has played there ever since.

“Among all the synagogues I’ve played at, Renewal at Shirat is unique. It has a mystical, more ‘song leader’ element [which speaks to me because I grew up in a Reform synagogue]. There is also a more Hasidic, “yearning” element. The repertoire we do is varied and speaks to this diverse approach of what Renewal offers for so many people,” he said.

His favorite part is when he, the cantor, and the rabbi are in sync about when and how a song should continue, get faster, get slower, etc. “There’s no planned formula and it just happens. As a musician, those are some of the moments I live for, and it’s very special to share those moments with others,” he added.

Lautaro Mantilla travels from Framingham to play guitar at Holy Happy Hour and Renewal services. The native Colombian guitarist and composer comes from a family of musicians and artists, and started playing when he was 3 years old. He has been playing for over 20 years and teaches at the New England Conservatory. He performs frequently at Jordan Hall and several other smaller venues in Boston and New York.

A couple of years ago, Lautaro was invited to play a classical guitar concert after a Yom Kippur service at Shirat, and “right from the start, the congregation was extremely welcoming and opened their hearts to me and my music, for which I feel very grateful and blessed,” he said.

What he likes best about playing at Shirat are “the incredible depth, energy, and powerful feelings that every service has, and how these feelings go with you after you perform. It’s a unique feeling that I always have performing there.”

Noam Sender is a multi-instrumentalist from Waltham who has been singing and playing hand percussion, guitar, and ney (Turkish flute) for over 50 years. Although these days he plays mostly in synagogues, over the years he’s performed in university auditoriums, music clubs, museums, and community centers.

He was introduced to Shirat about 10 years ago, when congregant Michele Tamaren organized the interfaith event, “Make a Joyful Noise! Uniting our Spirits through Jewish, Islamic and Christian Music.” He played Sufi music with the Islamic Ensemble and, unexpectedly, was invited to sit in with the Jewish Ensemble, where he first met Shirat’s Cantor Elana Rozenfeld. She invited him back to play at various events, including Shabbat Olam and Selichot services. Not long after, he became a regular musician at the Shabbat Renewal service.

“I love the Shirat community, and over the years I have made many friends here. I am grateful to be a part of the Renewal service and always set my intention to bring joy, upliftment, and inspiration to the congregation. Hopefully in the process, I also help create a sacred and soulful space,” Noam said.

He also teaches Jewish spiritual wisdom once a month at Nosh & Drash right after the Renewal service. “I discuss the mystical treasures hidden within the weekly Torah portion through a Hasidic lens, providing participants with spiritual tools and understanding for everyday life,” he said.

Huntington Theatre’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ Is A Triumph

Cast of The Huntington Theatre’s production of The Bluest Eye by Lydia R. Diamond

by Shelley A. Sackett

Brimming with sparkling ensemble acting, inspired staging and soulful song and dance, Huntington Theatre’s The Bluest Eye packs a wallop. Thanks to Lydia R. Diamond’s faithful yet nuanced adaptation, Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking début novel about two poor Black families in 1940s Lorain, Ohio is brought to the stage with all its poetry, pathos and humor intact. You can almost feel Morrison’s presence in the audience, beaming pride and approval.

The story is neither easy nor pretty. Nor is it sugar-coated. A harrowing (and timely) tale about the insidious effects of racism, the 80-minute intermission-less play explores what happens to people — especially children — whose identities and self-images become distorted by the relentless oppression and cruelty they suffer.

What happens to that marginalized little Black girl who feels neglected, lonely and ugly? Whose hand local (white) shopkeepers won’t touch? Whose home life is abusive and unsafe? Whose only frame of reference for happiness, friendship and family harmony is the Dick and Jane primer she reads every day in school, the one about white, blue-eyed, blond Jane and her adoring, white parents?

Brittany-Laurelle, Hadar Busia-Singleton, and Alexandria King

From the get go, there is a feeling of community and engagement among the actors and between actors and audience. Performed on a raised, round stage between two semi-circles of audience members, the (masked) physical immediacy and intimacy heightens the mood. No one is hidden; no one can hide.

The play opens with two feisty preteen sisters discussing local gossip. Claudia (Brittany-Laurelle, who brings a powerful but contained individuality to the role) and Frieda (Alexandria King in a magnificently physical and expressive, punchy performance) will act as narrators and guides, and their sassy, lighthearted banter is the perfect foil to the heaviness of the story that will unfold. Like vocal choreography, their voices dance with and around each other, weaving a single tapestry from many strands.

Their main topic of conversation is the Breedlove family, the ugliest family in Lorain. “Their ugliness came from a conviction that they accepted without question,” Claudia explains. Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove (played by the hypnotic Hadar Busia-Singleton, who manages to infuse her unbearably sad character with a whisper of hope) knows the world finds her Blackness ugly. “How do you get somebody to love you?” she asks over and over.

But she has a plan. She has figured out the key to being lovable. All she needs are blue eyes, as blue as Jane’s and Shirley Temple’s. “Then the teachers would see me and people would have to be nice to me,” she explains matter-of-factly.

R foreground: Ramona Lisa Alexander, Lindsley Howard, McKenzie Frye

Claudia and Frieda’s recollections and narrations are the backbone of the play, told with overlying reenactments of the various scenarios that have shaped and marked their and Pecola’s families. Mrs. Breedlove (McKenzie Frye) is a cleaning woman with a bum foot and missing front tooth who would go to the movies and dream of looking like Jean Harlow. Her husband Cholly (Greg Alverez Reid) suffered the kind of loss, humiliation and violence that doesn’t excuse his inexcusable acts, but at least provides context. Beneath their toughened exteriors, each carries the weight of unbearable despair. Together, they are a ticking time bomb, Pecola its collateral damage.

By comparison, Claudia, Frieda and their Mama (played by Ramona Lisa Alexander as unyielding and fussy yet kindhearted) lead a life of relative ease and stability. These three are the source of the play’s lightness and humor. As Claudia, Brittany-Laurelle brings down the house in the reenactment of a scene when she received a blond, white baby doll as a gift. To her mother’s disbelief and horror, rather than covet it, she destroys it, but only after she has humiliated and terrorized it. She hates its so-called beauty. “What was I supposed to do with that?” she asks without irony.

Through a series of events that would include spoilers, Pecola’s prayers for blue eyes and all that means seem to be answered by the magic of Soaphead Church, a charlatan soothsayer, played brilliantly by Brian D. Coats. Yet, it is at such a steep price that we are left grieving for this child whose innocent light has been extinguished.

Under Awoye Timpo’s direction, The Bluest Eye brings a lot of extras to the table. She makes wonderful use of a trio of women who appear throughout the production, imbuing them with many of the gestures and props familiar to fans of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.” They are welcome palette cleansers, acting as part Greek chorus, part harpies, and part goddesses. The interweaving of a capella spirituals (Frye is a knockout) and choreography (especially the slow-motion battle scene between Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove) is inspired and welcome.

The Boston theater scene is replete with many productions that are well worth seeing. Only a handful rise to the level of “must see.” The Bluest Eye is one of them.

‘The Bluest Eye’ – Based on the book by Toni Morrison, adapted for stage by Lydia R. Diamond, Dramaturgy by Sandy Alexandre. Directed by Awoye Timpo; Set Design by Jason Ardizzone-West; Costume Design by Dede Ayite and Rodrigo Muñoz; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré; Sound Design by Aubrey Dube; Original Music by Justin Ellington; Choreography by Kurt Douglas; Music Direction by David Freeman Coleman. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Boston Center for the Arts through March 26. Digital recordings available Feb. 14 through April 9.For tickets and information, go to: