In 2015 North Carolina native Bekah Brunstetter (writer for NBC’s “This is Us”) wrote “The Cake,” a play inspired by the true events that led to the Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission Supreme Court Case. The case dealt with a cake shop owner in Colorado who, because of her religious beliefs, refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. The court case began in 2012, and after a six-year-long battle, the final decision was made in favor of the baker.
Brunstetter’s play first premiered in Los Angeles and has been widely produced, most recently making its Off-Broadway debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Set in Winston Salem, NC (where Brunstetter is from), the contemporary dramedy showcases often complicated relationships that can arise between family and religion.
“The Cake” follows Della (Jane McNeill), a traditional Southern woman who is 100% sure of two things: cake and her faith. With her husband Tim (Braxton Williams) by her side, Della has nothing to worry about except the baking competition she is determined to win. When her best friend’s daughter Jen (Hannah Smith) comes home from New York with a request for a wedding cake, Della is overjoyed … until she learns Jen will be marrying a woman named Macy (Lily Nicole). Della’s faith leads her to question whether she should make the cake at all.
Under the direction of Holli Saperstein and Grace Berry, and produced by Panache Theatrical Productions, “The Cake” features four talented actors—Jane McNeill, Braxton Williams, Hannah Smith and Lily Nicole. Through comedic dialogue, each actor makes the heartfelt story come alive. encore sat down with the cast and directors to discuss what makes the production a must-see.
encore (e): What about this play made you want to take it on?
Grace Berry (GB): What interested me most about this play was the subject matter. Most plays that talk about LGBT issues have an opinionated standpoint, showing one person as the good guy and one person as the bad guy. This play strips that away. You come out sympathetic to all parties, wanting everyone to get along by the end of it.
Holli Saperstein (HS): First off, it’s beautifully written. Brunstetter treats everyone with fairness and kindness.
Second, the subject matter is contemporary and relevant to North Carolina. Since the writer is from NC, there are inside jokes you will only get if you’re from this state—things we love, the places we go shopping. I would go more specific but that would give away a few fun moments and jokes that are best experienced during the show!
e: How does the comedic aspect add to the story?
Jane McNeill (JM): The most effective way to reach people is through laughter. When the audience sees themselves in the characters, they are more willing to identify with the emotions rather than just the issues themselves. Some of the funniest parts in the play are about human insecurities, and we all have those.
e: June is Pride month; how is the plot unique in exploring LGBTQIA issues?
Lily Nicole (LN): I am very excited to be doing this play because I do identify as bisexual, and a lot of the issues the play touches upon I have experienced within my own family.
When I came out, apart from my mom, who was chill about it, many other family members continuously reminded me they were praying for me—that this phase will pass, that they love and support me, but they can’t condone my ways. The discussions I have with Della mirrors so many comments I’ve heard: “I love you and support you but I think we’re going to sit this one out.”
Just like Della, there was never any real acceptance [of me] because religion has taught them I’m wrong. So it’s really awesome to be involved in this production particularly with this group of people who have been so welcoming and supportive since day one.
e: What conversations do you hope people will go home and have after watching “The Cake”?
HS: We need to ask each other, “What do I need to know to make you feel more accepted and understood in your place in this world?”
LN: But it can be hard. Not all the characters are able to communicate outright, but every single one of them needs to hear and be heard. Sentiment and empathy is something that can help any situation. Conversations lead to understanding and understanding leads to compassion—which we all need a lot more of.
e: Della seems like a very complicated character struggling with opposing beliefs. How did you enter that mindset? How was that experience for you?
JM: I grew up in Whiteville, so let’s start with that. Growing up Baptist in a small town, I know so many people who are Della: a sweet, Christian, Southern belle caught between her religious beliefs and a changing world. I don’t think she is a complicated character either, just conflicted. She believes what she believes, and that’s OK with her until she is forced to deal with the changing world.
[As I was playing her,] I found myself really challenged by the idea that I had moved so far to the left that I wasn’t very tolerant of those type of people anymore. It was very challenging for me to make her believable and not judge her. You can’t judge a character you play because then you’re not being authentic.
e: What is the relationship between Tim and Della, and how does that relationship help drive the plot of the show?
Braxton Williams (BW): I think we have a surprising arc. In the beginning, you think their relationship is just one dimensional, but there are complicated layers there. Tim is Della’s support system in a lot of things, but he also lets her down.
Tim is a representation of the people who put their heads in the sand. He doesn’t want to hear about Jen and Macy’s relationship. He’s oblivious, and that is what he’ll soon do for the rest of his life: be oblivious to everything.
e: What do you love most about the characters Jen and Macy?
LN: I was drawn to Macy as soon as I read the character description. I said to myself she’s a strong African-American, engaged to a beautiful up-and-coming woman. She’s an advocate; she fights for injustice and doesn’t take any shit. That’s me! I could totally play this character!
Then I started reading the play, and she has pushed my emotions more than any other character because I can relate to her so much, and the writing is so realistic I forget it’s a play. She knows what she knows, and it’s unequivocally right; she has done her research. Just as right as she is with her facts, she knows that her love is right. Macy loves so strong it’s terrifying, absolutely terrifying. She’s someone I aspire to be.
Hannah Smith (HS): My favorite thing about Jen is her total commitment to her own journey. Although she puts a lot of obstacles in front of herself, she still has a desire to figure out what she needs. She is compassionate and empathetic toward people who have different opinions from her. Although, it makes her a bit timid because she doesn’t want to rock the boat, which I relate to.
Having to live as your authentic self and not knowing how that is going to permeate the rest of your life is scary. Is it going to be a nice, even saturation, or is it going to be a total blobby mess?
e: If you were to describe this show in only three words what would they be?
HS: Compassion, humor and insight.
BW: Introspection, observation and illumination.
LN: Full of hope—bam, three words!
June 13-23, 7:30 p.m.; 3 p.m.
Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre, Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
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