Little did playwright Bekah Brunstetter know that when she penned the first draft of her play “The Cake” that — years later — its themes would feel like front page news. Currently running at Horizon Theatre, the production deals head-on with LGBTQ issues vs. conservative values.
First written at the end of 2015, “The Cake” centers around Della (Marcie Millard), for whom life is going pretty swimmingly. Her bakery in North Carolina is successful and she has been asked to be on a TV reality show. When Jen (Rhyn McLemore Saver), whom she helped raise, comes home and asks if Della will make a wedding cake for her upcoming nuptials, Della is delighted. When Della finds out, however, that Jen is about to marry another woman — Macy (Parris Sarter) — she gives the matter a second thought and has plenty of discussions with her husband Jim (Allen Edwards).
After she finished that first draft, Brunstetter got engaged and assumed the play was dated. “I thought my parents were the only people in the country who didn’t support gay marriage,” she recalls. She grew up in the South — Winston Salem, North Carolina — as a Southern Baptist in a religious family. Her father, who was a state senator, actually voted for a 2012 amendment against same-sex marriage.
When she read about the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado and how its battle between a same-sex couple who was turned down by its owner in making a cake was headed to the Supreme Court, though, she knew it was time to return to the work.
“Over the course of developing it, it became incredibly relevant. At the time I wrote it the Colorado case was not even going to be heard by the Supreme Court, then it became a ‘thing.’ It was an interesting alignment.”
She read everything she could about the Colorado case, followed the Supreme Court hearing, and read everything Christians point to in the Bible to support their values. “I also talked to my parents and parents of gay people who have changed their stances, as well as liberal pastors in the South and conservative pastors in the South. The play has been in a lot of different communities across the country. It’s not been formal research but hearing people out.”
The playwright made a few final revisions before the play opened off-Broadway this spring with Debra Jo Rupp (“That ’70s Show”) playing Della.
Brunstetter sees a lot of Jen in herself — up to the point that she’s heterosexual. “I have conservative parents and throughout my life, I was very secretive about my sexuality. When I had boyfriends, they didn’t know. I have a strong disagreement with them on same-sex marriage,” she said. “Some of my best friends since I was very young have been gay. It was something I didn’t understand. At a certain point, I would imagine what it would be like if I brought a woman home. In a way, the play is a dramatization of that.”
It was important for Brunstetter as a playwright, to make the show balanced and not turn Della into an easy villain. “It’s about grounding Della and making her real and human. The story has been the same since the first draft but I have been working at making Jim and Macy real people with real points of view,” she said.
For three years, Brunstetter was a producer and writer for TV’s acclaimed “This Is Us,” but left after this season. Next up for her is a stage adaptation of the movie “The Notebook” working alongside Ingrid Michaelson. She is also adapting “The Cake” into a feature film. “The movie is an opportunity to talk about what is going on in churches right now,” Brunstetter said.