When Bekah Brunstetter started writing “The Cake” – a play about gay-marriage controversies centered on a wedding cake – she worried it wouldn’t age well.
It was 2015, public acceptance of gay marriage was on the rise, and that year’s Supreme Court decision seemed to settle the question once and for all, upholding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The decision also overturned a law supported by Brunstetter’s father, former state Sen. Pete Brunstetter, the 2011 Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as only between one man and one woman, also known as Amendment One.
But just as “The Cake” was in rehearsals this past June for its debut, the Supreme Court announced it would hear a case involving a baker who cited religious reasons for refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. That’s exactly what “The Cake” is about.
Brunstetter got the news by text from friends jokingly congratulating her: “What incredible PR people you have!”
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“I couldn’t have planned the timing any better in terms of worlds lining up with a play,” Brunstetter said in a phone interview. “It takes so long to get a play off the ground. Oftentimes you’re writing about something that’s troubling in the moment. Then by the time the play happens, people have moved on. But not this.”
It’s a homecoming for Brunstetter, a 2004 UNC graduate, Winston-Salem native and acclaimed writer for NBC’s hit series “This Is Us.”
It’s her first play to be performed at PlayMakers. Jeffrey Meanza, another UNC alumnus, serves as director. He’s the associate artistic director at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Along with the play’s local connections, “The Cake” has enough immediacy to almost qualify as journalism as well as art.
Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission will be on the Supreme Court’s fall term commencing Oct. 2. The case involves Jack Phillips, a Colorado cakemaker who refused to make a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins’ wedding in 2012. It’s been in court ever since; the Trump Administration Justice Department recently filed a brief that sides with the baker.
The Supreme Court case mirrors the storyline in “The Cake,” which tells of wedding preparations for same-sex couple Jen and Macy. Like Brunstetter, Jen grew up in a conservative Christian household in Winston-Salem. And Jen wants Della – a beloved family friend, surrogate mother figure and baker – to make her cake.
Except that Della, a conservative Christian, doesn’t approve of gay marriage. Therein lies the conflict.
“Della is kind of a hybrid of relatives and women I’ve met at church,” Brunstetter said. “Not any one person in particular, but she’s a voice in my head representing these really warm, loving women who are hilarious in their own way and have an emotional strength and intelligence that is not acknowledged very often. There’s an assumption that conservatives like her are idiots. As much as I want that to be true, in my liberal pocket of New York theater and L.A. TV, I know in my heart that’s not true.”
An empathetic ear
Brunstetter herself is straight and got married last October to actor Morrison Keddie. The wedding was in North Carolina, with a reception featuring “the works” – Carolina barbecue, fried chicken, collards, mac & cheese and cobbler, topped off by a chocolate poundcake wedding cake (a slice of which is in the freezer for their anniversary).
On the one hand, Brunstetter feels a lot of sympathy for her characters Jen and Macy, who have to struggle to have an experience that straight couples can take for granted.
“Bekah writes about Jen as a Southern woman who goes off to New York and feels split in two,” said Meanza, the director. “She’s surrounded by these people passing judgment on where she came from, and all she can do is nod and go, ‘Yeah, totally.’ Internally, that sense of relocation can create such a huge, painful conflict.”
But Brunstetter also feels for Della, the baker, who holds a set of views that are seldom portrayed onstage with much sympathy. It is to her credit that Della (played in this production by PlayMakers company member Julia Gibson) is not a caricature in “The Cake.”
“When we had our designer run-through, everyone in the room was just weeping and laughing,” said Vivienne Benesch, PlayMakers’ producing artistic director. “It’s like warm comfort food that awakens in you the desire to be the best version of who you are. Bekah is a great writer with such compassion for complex differences and points of view around polarizing issues. In the same way that cake itself is a metaphor for common ground, her writing does the same thing.”
But she’ll be there for closing weekend, Sept. 30-Oct. 1, with her parents – whose beliefs about gay marriage run counter to hers. That leaves Brunstetter feeling “nervous and excited” about their reaction.
“Working on this play prompted a lot of conversations with them about this,” she said. “One reason I set out to write it was to engage in debate without it turning into angry arguments. We try to understand each other’s point of view.”
“I was asked the other day if I consider myself a conservative theater artist,” Brunstetter said. “I consider myself more a conservative empathizer. I’ve always floated in the middle of these two spaces, and there’s not much middle there anymore. Everything’s so polarized these days, so I exist in this space and try to dramatize it.”
What: PlayMakers Repertory Company presents “The Cake,” written by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Jeffrey Meanza
When: Sept. 13 through Oct. 1. Post-show discussions with the actors are Sept. 20 and 24.
Where: Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Road, UNC-Chapel Hill
Cost: $15-$57 ($10 for students with valid UNC photo ID)
Details: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org