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THEATER 'This Is Us' writer's drama covers intolerance, same-sex marriage
by Catey Sullivan
2018-04-04

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The Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on whether a Colorado baker can legally refuse a gay couple's request for a wedding cake. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter wondered how the conflict would play out if the opposing parties had been lifelong friends who genuinely loved each other.

That's the dilemma at the root of her new work The Cake, opening in previews April 8 at Edgewater's Rivendell Theatre. We caught up with Brunstetter while she was on hiatus from her day job as a producer and writer for the NBC monster-hit This Is Us. The playwright and TV writer ( American Gods, Switched at Birth ) talked about weddings, family and the healing powers of a tasty dessert.

Windy City Times: You started workshopping this play in 2015, right before [same-sex] marriage became legalized. Did you worry that it would lose relevance?

Bekah Brunstetter: I actually did question whether it would still be relevant. After the marriage ruling, I was like, 'do people even care about this that much anymore? Trump was just this guy that everyone seemed to be laughing at. When he became president, it became painfully clear that all the progress we thought we'd made was in many respects for naught. At that point, the play became incredibly necessary to me.

WCT: The wedding cake case before the Supreme Court deals with people who are strangers to each other. Why did you make Della, the baker in the play, so close with Jen, one of the women getting married?

BB: It made it more personal to me. The people I know who have beliefs like Della's—they're not these evil, awful people. They aren't idiots. Some of them are my family members. They are deeply connected to me. I felt like we'd heard the story of how this would play out between strangers—that's the Colorado case. I wanted to tell the story of two people who loved each other, and couldn't just dismiss each other.

I knew I wanted to write something that put a person with these deeply held religious beliefs at the center of her life.

WCT: You've set The Cake in Winston-Salem, which is also the city you're from. Is it autobiographical?

BB: I come from a conservative family. And although I don't consider myself conservative by any means, I have an empathy for my family, for people like Della, that I cannot shake. I challenged myself to bring a liberal audience to empathize with Della. That started out as a very personal quest—to humanize people like her.

I'm straight, but I was planning my wedding while I was writing this. And I started wondering, what would my parents do if I brought home a woman? How would I tell them? How would they react? I have a loving family, but it's not the kind of family where you want to rock the boat.

My plays are always talking to somebody. I'll write something and it's like 'this is what I'd say to this person if I had more balls.' I definitely have conversations in plays that I wish I could have in real life.

WCT: Did the piece change at all after the 2016 election? It seems like the new administration in Washington [D.C.] put things in a different context.

BB: The things that come up in 'The Cake' became incredibly important to me after the election. I saw so much anger and fear. I wanted to put something into the world that showed people engaging.

I think there are truly evil in power in some places now. But I didn't want to write about them. This isn't about politicians. It's about a woman who owns a small bakery and a young woman who has been her daughter in some respects and who is terrified because her entire world view is being challenged. I didn't want to demonize anyone. I think plays can get people talking about issues in a way that movies or articles or new reports can't.

WCT: Your stage directions state that there should be cake served to everybody after every show. Why is that important?

BB: Cake brings people together. Everybody loves cake. People gather over cake—for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, for all sorts of things. I mean, I can't insist that theaters must serve cake every night. But I hope they do. If people talk about the play, great. If they just eat cake, great. I feel like there's so much shit right now. Cake is just one thing that's totally good.

Rivendell Theatre's production of The Cake opens in previews April 8 at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 Ridge Ave. Tickets are $28-$38; visit RivendellTheatre.org or call 773-334-7728.


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