Katie Walsh ‘21
Maybe it was because I had been up at 5AM to bake 72 muffins and roughly 100 scones for Summit Coffee Co. that morning. Maybe it was because I was vaguely delirious by 7:30PM as the lights dimmed on the second showing of Bekah Brunsetter’s short play “The Cake.” But Zoe Harrison’s ‘21 (director) production, whatever recipe of magic it was, made me contagious with giggles, and somehow, resonate with its main character—the conservative, Southern, blonde (everything that I am not) baker (something that I am) played by Meg Houck ‘20.
The play, for those who didn’t have the opportunity to see it, has a deceivingly simple plot: a Southern baker, Della, refuses to make her goddaughter, a lesbian, a wedding cake for her wedding; her resulting internal struggle prompts questions of bigotry in America, internalized homophobia, and biblical shame. Add in a misogynistic dead-eyed baking competition presenter who spews sexualy explicit comments played creepily by Lee Kromer ‘21, and you’ve got a complicated recipe to be sure.
The predominant action of the play happens in the nuanced arguments between Della, Macy (played by Kayla Edwards ‘20), and Jen (played by Caroline Webster ‘21)— a fact that for better or worse puts a significant pressure on the small group of actors the play’s cast to act with subtlety. Despite the “cake” theme, this was a no-frills production that relied on a relatively simple set. This focus on dialogue resulted in stand out performances from Houck and Edwards, who embodied the tension of ideological chasm believably and with an immense amount of grace and restraint.
Brunstetter’s play relies on our cultural awareness of such a chasm—a plot as old as the U.S itself. The North vs the South, the biblical vs. the areligious, male vs. female, the heteronormative vs the non-normative. The standout moments from the play were when these differences came into focus, were turned on their head, and made into punchlines. Perhaps the biggest reveal of the play is Della’s own confusion regarding her sexuality. Jen’s character’s internalized homophobia and the ingrained belief system associated with Winston-Salem, NC, the play’s setting, was even more complex and fully formed.
Though the play’s lens mostly tackled queerness and queer acceptance, many subjects were on the menu for the evenings performance. Namely, the play’s comedy relies heavily on our knowledge of the absurdity of late capitalism—Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, and baking game show, s to name a few, became significant props in the play. What I find most interesting and perhaps complicated to digest is Brunstetter’s seeming ambivalence to a true critique of class dynamics in the U.S. While a suggestion of it exists in the play, it’s crowded out by the layering of the many other tensions the play ambitiously sets out to deal with.
Macy’s monologue at the start of the play perhaps symbolizes this best, ranging from religion to the relative ethical benefits of almond milk. While I believe the cast dealt with the complexity of these topics with authenticity, at times the play was a little hot-boxed by its attempt to address nearly every cultural dichotomy at present in our current time. Notably, “The Cake” references eating disorders without delving into the dynamics of Macy’s disordered eating behavior, chalking it up to bullying and a Northern snobbishness towards full-fat Southern food.
The most refreshing aspect of the play was its relevancy in our current moment. The play inherently allows its audience to empathize with Della, whose politics are not, I imagine, the opinion of many at Davidson College. But the accessibility of her character allowed me to do what I often forget to do in this cavalcade of political chicanery—listen to opinions I would otherwise ignore. I became self-concious of my own willingness to “cancel” and write others off, shelving them in a categorical cake box marked “bigot” without more analysis, reflection, and empathy. Della’s comedic timing, executed extremely well by Houck, upended an oversimplification of Della’s personality, which, though surely flawed, ultimately reached a kind of honest redemption even though Della herself does not come to full acceptance of her goddaughter’s sexuality by the end of the play.
For this reason I think Brunstetter’s play hits a specific heart string in the American political moment—how do we connect and resolve an ever-growing difference of opinion? Brunstetter’s answer is seemingly food.
Ultimately, “The Cake”’s thesis is as simple to swallow as butter and sugar: we can’t change the ingredients we were made with. But it’s who we share our cake with, and how we do so, that makes the difference.
Did I mention the play made me really hungry? Yeah, just super hungry.
Katie Walsh ‘20 is an English major from Jupiter, FL. She can be reached for comment at email@example.com.