To bake or not to bake: “The Cake” takes on “religious liberty”
Debra Jo Rupp and Carolyn Ratteray / Darrett Sanders

LOS ANGELES—In her funny and touching new play The Cake, Bekah Brunstetter tackles the thorny issue of equal rights in public accommodation vs. an individual’s right to “religious liberty” in their choice to discriminate against those whose personal values may not jibe with their own. It’s a bittersweet confection that humanizes all parties in the conversation, even if one side doesn’t win 100 percent.

This issue happens to be hot news at the Supreme Court, which is now set to hear a case that could finally ban businesses from discriminating against LGBT people for good. Or could validate a company’s right to say that because of the owner’s deeply felt religious conviction they cannot (fill in the blank) rent you an apartment or a hotel room, serve you dinner, make your wedding cake, provide prescribed pharmaceuticals, treat your broken ankle, accept you as a student, and more.

If the latter decision is made next term, it would open the door not only to discrimination against LGBT people, but anyone whose beliefs, behavior or appearance contradicts some dogma you might want to cite. Anyone who’s been divorced, anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, anyone who is not married, or anyone married to someone of a different race or faith, a woman wearing pants or who’s on birth control, anyone wearing clothing made of more than a single material, and now we’re talking widespread chaos in our legal system.

The case in question involves a bakery that refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. At what point does your ”religious liberty” diminish my need to live a life free of arbitrary discrimination? The rights of millions of Americans are at stake.

Anti-discrimination activists, including the LGBT community, are already troubled by the president’s first SCOTUS appointment, Neil M. Gorsuch, who in a bold recent dissent argued that it was OK for a jurisdiction not to list both LGBT parents on their child’s birth certificate. His is a predictable vote next year for the bakery. One more SCOTUS appointment by a Republican president and a great deal of social progress will be under the gun. With the staggering uptick in harassment and violence against the LGBT community that we’ve seen in recent months, as well as against other minority communities, there is considerable reason to fear that “liberty and justice for all” may soon become just a quaint delusional memory.

The good news is that the Resistance is mighty. One of the lessons it has learned, though we often wish it could be less of a challenge, is that minds often change one by one. Within a relatively short span, look how marriage equality came to be not just favored by increasing percentages of Americans, but in 2015 the law of the land.

Brunstetter’s setting of her play in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, reminds us that minds do not change all at once. Jen (Shannon Lucio) returns to her hometown with her wife-to-be Macy (Carolyn Ratteray), where they plan to marry in a few months. In part their trip is to prepare loved ones for the news that the “lucky guy” is another woman. Debra Jo Rupp (That ’70s Show) plays Della, the local cakemeister, religious fundamentalist and best friend of Jen’s late mother, who balks at Jen’s request for a wedding cake. Her husband Tim (Joe Hart) is a hardworking plumber; the love in their marriage is pretty stale by now. A final character, not seen on stage, is George (Morrison Keddie), who voices the host of a TV reality show bakeoff in which Della takes part. The triple-layer mix is part family, part faith, and part frosting.

Della is, of course, the central character who must decide, thinking for herself out of her own experience for maybe the first time in her life, to bake or not to bake. Rupp is pure genius at evolving this wacky character into surreal believability. It is to the playwright’s credit that all of her characters are congenitally flawed. Yes, we the audience undoubtedly enter the theatre with preconceived notions of right and wrong, but the characters meant to embody these principles are not necessarily so likable. Della is not the only one with “issues.” Actually, one of the issues is the wisdom of spending so much money on a wedding at all.

Brunstetter, a much-produced playwright and currently a producer on NBC’s This is Us, is a native of Winston-Salem. “I feel there’s a lack of empathy, especially in our liberal pocket, a sense of dismissiveness towards people we don’t agree with. There are people in my life who have these values, who I love, who I am always trying to understand.”

In a recent op-ed piece by Joan C. Williams of the University of California Hastings College of Law, the author also tries to understand some working-class conservatism, positing that “For non-elites, religion often provides the mental exercise, stability, hopefulness, impulse control and social safety net that elites get from their therapists, jobs and bank accounts.”

In a personal family story, I remember my maternal grandmother Annie Berlin, who came from Eastern Europe and made her immigrant life in Norfolk, Va. While she kept kosher at home, she believed it was a greater sin to refuse the food and hospitality of a friend or neighbor than to eat something unkosher. We all make accommodations to our surroundings as we try to get along.

It’s amazing what sharing a piece of lovingly crafted pink lemonade cake can do for a relationship.

The Cake, in an intermissionless 90 minutes, is joy from beginning to end, with ample humor (no one’s buttons spared) and also deep empathy with people who have been raised with eternal verities that are simply not universal. The writing is crisp, revealing, and idiomatic. Direction by Jennifer Chambers is snappy and fresh, the actors obviously enjoying their roles and their place in history. Especially impressive are the dream and fantasy sequences produced by set designer Pete Kickok, lighting designer Pablo Santiago, and sound designer Jeff Gardner. Costumes ranging from semi-nude to wedding attire are the work of Elena Flores.

The Echo Theater Company world premiere production will be followed by others at Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C., in September; Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, S.C., in December; La Jolla Playhouse in February 2018; and Houston’s Alley Theater in June 2018. If you’re in the vicinity, don’t miss it.

Don’t miss it in L.A. either! The Cake runs through August 6, with performances Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, Sun. at 4 pm, and Mon. at 8 pm, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles 90039. For tickets and other information call (310) 307-3753 or go to Free parking in the lot less than a block south of the theatre.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.