When writing her latest play, The Cake, Bekah Brunstetter used an old family recipe.
Inspired by her own North Carolina upbringing, the world premiere of Brunstetter’s comic drama stars That ’70s Show’s Debra Jo Rupp as Della, a Southern Baptist baker who’s deeply conflicted when a lesbian couple asks her to make their wedding cake.
The Cake feels particularly fresh in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to hear the case of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because it violated his religious beliefs. Following its engagement at the Echo Theater in L.A., the play is already scheduled for multiple productions across the country.
Brunstetter, who’s also a writer-producer on NBC’s This Is Us, explains why creating LGBT characters isn’t always a piece of cake.
As a gay theatergoer, I’m fully prepared to dislike a woman who doesn’t want to bake a cake for lesbian brides. Won’t L.A. audiences dismiss Della in The Cake as a small-minded villain?
I actually wanted to surprise a liberal audience with empathy for a character like Della, and seeing that happen has been the most rewarding experience I’ve had as a playwright. But I also wanted to show someone like Della making a slow, realistic step toward embracing how the world has changed. I wanted liberals and conservatives to sit next to each other and come out of the theater with different points of view.
Are you hoping to change conservative Christian minds on same-sex marriage?
My more immediate goal is to open minds so that change can gradually happen. It’s really hard to go against the belief system that’s provided you comfort and structure your entire life, but I wanted to show that there are real human beings behind the walls created by that belief system.
You set the play in Winston-Salem, where you grew up in the Southern Baptist church.
Yes, and I went to college at UNC-Chapel Hill. Then I went to grad school in New York, and I immediately felt this deep conflict that I had internalized for many years and have only recently started to reckon with, because I have an incredible fondness for where I’m from, the people who live there, and my own family members who have values that I don’t necessarily agree with. Now I live in L.A., I do theater, I’m surrounded by gay people, so it’s still something I wrestle with all the time.
In other words, your family believes that homosexuality is a sin?
Even though I’m straight, this has been a point of conflict with my parents since I was young. It was one of the things that made me start to question my own belief system, because I didn’t get why it was wrong. Ever since high school, some of my best friends have been gay. All of the boys I loved turned out to be gay—but oh, did I love them. Because this is something we have a hard time talking about, the play actually came out of a conversation I’m trying to have with my parents.
You’ve gone through a lot of trouble to avoid confrontation.
[Laughs] Yeah, I’m not a super-confrontational person, so it’s easier to work arguments out in a play before I can actually have them with people. And then I don’t even have to have the argument, because I can just invite those people to the play.
Do you know a Della?
She’s a conglomeration of a number of women—women I know through my church, relatives, teachers from elementary school. There’s also a little bit of Paula Deen in there.
Do you still consider yourself a Christian?
That’s such a complicated question. It’s funny, because I’m 35, so I should have an answer. I know I believe in God. I’ve tried really hard not to, honestly. I spent most of my 20s trying to be atheist or agnostic—to be cool like my New York friends—but it’s just not me. I still go to church sometimes. Mostly, I’ve just been trying to reeducate myself as an adult about what the Bible really says, who Jesus really was, and all of that stuff.
Why did you make the central couple in The Cake lesbians as opposed to gay men?
I always have to find myself in a play I’m writing. I’ve actually spent a fair amount of time wondering what would happen if I brought a woman home, so the play sort of plays out that situation. I also feel like we see gay men more than gay women in plays, and I wanted to subvert conservative expectations by showing two adorable, charming, intelligent women who happen to love the shit out of each other.
You’re a newlywed. How did your own wedding inform the play?
It definitely grounded me throughout the process. I finished the first draft of the play and then got engaged, so a lot of my manic wedding planning became a part of the play. It’s such an emotional time—joining your life with another person seems so crazy—so some of that worry and excitement also made its way into the play.
Was your wedding cake prepared without incident?
Yes, my friend from high school made it very happily. I have half of it in my freezer right now and can’t wait to eat it. We actually got married in the mountains of North Carolina, and it was interesting to think about how easy it was for us, a man and a woman—no one thought twice about it. But when we were talking to vendors, a number of them were very proud that they had worked on gay weddings, so there’s a lot of change happening there right now.
Plays with major LGBT themes tend to be written by LGBT playwrights. As a straight woman, did you ever question whether you were the right person to tell this particular story?
Absolutely. But I went into it with my insecurities, knowing that I can’t completely understand a gay person’s point of view, and then I relied heavily on my collaborators, many of whom are gay, to help me make it more real. In doing readings and workshops, I worked with a number of gay directors. I’ve also given it to a couple of friends, gay women in North Carolina, to read. I had people I trust to let me know if I was missing anything in terms of that experience.
You also co-wrote Camp Wanatachi, a lesbian coming-of-age musical in this summer’s New York Musical Festival.
Natalie Weiss came to me after she wrote the music and just needed help with the book. The story itself came from her experiences at Christian youth summer camp, but I also went to Christian youth summer camp every year when I was a kid, so I got that world.
Were there same-sex flirtations at your camp?
Oh, yeah. I remember being aware that stuff was going on and being curious, but I was also super-intimidated and freaked out, because at that point I still thought it was wrong.
You’re a writer and producer on This Is Us. What was behind the decision to reveal that William, Randall’s birth father, was in a gay relationship?
The goal is normalizing—having William be gay, maybe doing a little story about how Randall is processing that, but then just normalizing it. We’re always looking for characters who can be gay without it overtaking the story, so that it’s just part of who they are. We have a writer this year who’s a gay man with a partner and two adopted children, and it’s been fascinating to hear his perspective.
Can you tease any LGBT representation on the upcoming second season now that William is deceased?
This is so vague, but when we came back into the writers’ room this year, one of my pitches was for the inclusion of a gay character. It got traction, so I do believe it will happen. Sorry, that’s all I can say!
You also worked as a writer and producer on the Starz drama American Gods, which featured a groundbreaking gay sex scene between two Muslim men.
As a gay man, Bryan Fuller, one of the creators, comes into every project trying to find a voice for gay characters. He was really excited about that Jinn and Salim storyline. He came into the process with it all beautifully mapped out in his head, and he was really protective of that episode.
Fuller recently spoke at Outfest about how studio executives have often thwarted his attempts to bring LGBT characters to television. Have you experienced that kind of pushback?
I won’t get specific, but I have worked on shows in the past and pitched, “What if this character was gay?” Networks were like, “No, they can’t be gay, because we may need them to be a love interest.” But I feel strongly that there is now a genuine interest across the board to have more gay characters, and I’m so proud to be a part of that.
The Cake runs through August 13 at Echo Theater Company in L.A.