Brow Beat

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Attended What the Constitution Means to Me and the Crowd Went Wild

Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking after receiving the American Law Institute's Henry J. Friendly Medal.
The Notorious RBG visited the Notorious Great White Way.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Saturday night’s performance of What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck’s play exploring the intersections between America’s founding document and the lives of the women in her own family, was attended by a woman who has spent more time than most thinking about the Constitution: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Charles Haugland, Director of New Work at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, was in the audience, and described it as “an incredible circus” in a Twitter thread about the performance:

It was hardly first time Ginsburg made her presence felt at the play, which is currently at the Helen Hayes Theater after its San Francisco debut and an off-Broadway run. What the Constitution Means to Me features an audio sample of Ginsburg explaining the point at which she thinks there will be enough women on the Supreme Court:

Ginsburg’s answer was an applause line from the moment she said it, so much so that later interviewers have prompted her to redeliver it, and the audio has gotten applause at past performances of the play. On Saturday, it got a standing ovation:

As government-official-goes-to-the-theater stories go, this one is more interesting than Mike Pence at Hamilton because of the way What the Constitution Means to Me is staged. The play is structured around a recreation of a talk Schreck gave as a teenager at American Legion halls to earn money for college, and includes a parliamentary-style debate between Schreck and a high school debater about the proposition of abolishing the Constitution and creating one based on positive rights. Schreck’s adversary is played by actual high school debaters Thursday Williams and Rosdely Ciprian on alternating nights, and an audience member is selected to judge the result. But although a line about imagining arguing a case before the Supreme Court got more applause than usual, Ginsburg didn’t get the judicial nomination, as Schreck explained to Backstage senior staff writer Casey Mink:

The audience member judging the debate on Saturday found in favor of preserving the Constitution, and Ginsburg offered a sort of concurring opinion, according to Williams, who performed that night:

Social media blew up as soon as word got out that the Supreme Court justice was attending, and Ginsburg was greeted by a cheering crowd as she left the theater.

The crowd’s reaction was not unusual: Ginsburg became a celebrity in the waning years of the Obama presidency for writing fiery dissents as the right-wing, male majority on the Supreme Court began taking away women’s rights, most famously when the court ruled that Hobby Lobby was not required to provide its female employees with birth control. In the Trump era, she’s become something of a secular saint, as the prospect of another Brett Kavanaugh on the bench inspires thoughts, prayers, and Saturday Night Live sketches about the 86-year-old’s health. Thursday Williams wrote that she was honored to perform in front of Ginsburg in a tweet that contained a buried lede:

It’s not surprising that Justice Sotomayor has also seen the play—Williams was part of Sotomayor’s judicial internship program, so it would have been even easier for her to get tickets than for your average sitting Supreme Court justice without a personal connection to the production—but if her attendance sparked an audience frenzy based on her beloved fiery Supreme Court dissents, it didn’t make it to Twitter. What the Constitution Means to Me is playing on Broadway through August 24 with Schreck in the lead role, and will kick off a national tour—albeit without Schreck—at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in January of 2020. Who knows what the Constitution will mean to any of us by then?