‘What the Constitution Means To Me’ is start of Rep’s season of Americana

ALBANY, N.Y. — Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, the Producing-Artistic Director of the Rep in Albany, insists she never tries to design a season around a theme.

Recently it occurred to her that this season was a tribute to her favorite subject – Americana.

It’s not just plays about American history that appeals to her. She says she is drawn to work that not only tells what happened. She wants to learn why it happened, what it means to the present and how it might have an effect on the future.

Considering the next show, which begins previews tomorrow for a Tuesday opening is “What the Constitution Means To Me.” You have to admit she’s off to a good start.

The play, which runs through Oct. 8, was written by Heidi Schreck, who also starred in it on Broadway. It’s about the playwright’s own experiences as a teenage girl traveling the country to compete in,and usually win, debate contests based on the value and importance of the U.S. Constitution.

This experience made her intimately aware not only of the strengths in the document but also its shortcomings. In this work, she uses four generations of women in her family to draw personalized examples of how the document could be improved.

Mancinelli-Cahill insists that the work is important to do at this time. “I don’t think it is a show we should do,” she says. “It is a show we must do.” One thing she admires about the work is that “Someone might totally disagree with Heidi’s point of view and still leave the theater thinking about the world in which we live.”

Mancinelli-Cahill believes the idea of the play ending with the Heidi character having a true debate with an area high schooler is genius. “It not only engages the audience who votes on the winner, it presents valid, thoughtful reasons to counter the arguments presented by the central character.” She adds the brilliance of the young debaters will further impress the audience.

However, there are areas in the play that are non-debatable. One of which is the semantics of language. Mancinelli-Cahill points to the issue of privacy, which is never mentioned in the Constitution. Another is the terminology used to overturn Roe v Wade.

Mancinelli-Cahill says the playwright makes the ambiguity of language personal as she tells a true story about her grandmother losing protection against being sexual abused because of the interpretation of “shall” and “will.” “It makes you wonder how many guarantees are really in the constitution,” she says in such a way that indicates this is the intent of the play.

Labor versus Capital has always been a dynamic in American politics. The Rep’s March offering, “Sweat,” a Pulitzer prize-winning play, is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, during the first decade of this century. It takes place in a local dive bar in a town where a factory is changing the economics of the community by shifting much of its production to Mexico.

Large numbers of people are being laid off and most of the others are having their salaries reduced. It is a community with a 40% poverty rate. Racial tension is high; there is concern about females becoming managers and friends often have to choose opposite sides.

Mancinelli-Cahill says the playwright Lynn Nottage, who is Black, claims she was inspired to write “Sweat” in order to understand how the region known as the “Rust Belt” that once voted solidly Democratic now votes Republican. “Sweat” runs March 8-31.

“Three Mothers,” which runs April 26-May 12, goes back further in time to the 1960s. It was inspired by a newspaper image of the mothers of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney leaving a funeral memorial for their sons.

The three young men were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 while trying to register African-Americans to vote. Two of the young men, Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish and from New York City. Goodman was African-American from Mississippi. Race, religion and social justice were motives for their murders.

After the funeral the three mothers had a long meeting together and each became active in the Civil Rights Movement. This play imagines what occurred in that private room.

If it all sounds pretty dark, Mancinelli-Cahill is smart enough to include light and joy in the season. “Million Dollar Quartet Christmas”, which runs Nov. 24 to Dec. 24, imagines Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash performing a holiday concert. “How Americana is that?” she asks, rhetorically.

“Beautiful,” the juke box musical based on the life of Carole King is what she calls the story of the American Dream. It tells of a woman succeeding in what was then a man’s world, all based on her talent. It is the summer treat that runs from July 12 to Aug.18.

Perhaps the show of which she is most proud is the still-untitled play about the life of Henry Johnson. He was an African-American War hero from Albany whose valor was neglected for decades. It is the work for the company’s educational component “On the Go” program that travels to area schools.

Mancinelli-Cahill is extremely proud of The Rep’s “under the radar” educational programs. The year creating a play honoring a local African-American hero is the perfect punctuation to a season that makes you think about America. Bringing the real America to a young audience is, in her mind, the best way to avoid repeating the errors of the past.

For information or tickets for the 2023-2024 season go to capitalrep.org

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