By Bekah Brunstetter. Directed by Angela Konrad. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Saturday, May 18. Continues until June 8
Homophobia isn’t funny, racist stereotypes aren’t funny, and neither is The Cake.
At the centre of playwright Bekah Brunstetter’s ill-conceived “comedy” is Della (Erla Faye Forsyth), a petite—her size is important because fat-shaming is also a through line in this mess—white bakery owner and cake designer in a small North Carolina town who’s just weeks away from competing on a major American baking show on TV.
Della is an older woman who speaks with a southern accent and equates moral fortitude with adhering to recipes and not skimping on real butter. When Della’s unofficial goddaughter, Jen (Stephanie Elgersma), shows up and announces her engagement, Della is thrilled to make her a wedding cake—until she’s introduced to Jen’s fiancée, Macy (Cecilly Day), an African-American lesbian from Brooklyn, and suddenly Della’s too busy to oblige.
I don’t want to validate that premise in any way. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is wrong. But The Cake’s most significant misstep is how it uses Macy, particularly in contrast to Della. Before Jen has even appeared on-stage, Macy and Della meet. It’s not clear why Macy, a stranger, would go into a woman’s bakery and start talking about how sugar is “as addictive as cocaine”, and how she doesn’t let herself eat cake. (She doesn’t eat gluten, therefore the implication is she’s a rigid, joyless hipster compared to Della.) After Della rescinds her offer to make Jen a wedding cake, Macy writes an article about their experience of discrimination at an unnamed bakery, and Jen blows up at her. Apparently because the real problem is Macy calling out homophobia and not Della’s actual homophobia? The article results in Della being disqualified from the baking competition and it seems as though the play wants us to feel bad for Della, but no, thanks.
Day brings heart to her role as Macy, and a lot of resistance to the way in which Brunstetter writes her. Angry, militant, “scary”, and feminist, Macy is less a character than a collection of stereotypes about black, queer women. She yells at her fiancée for failing to introduce her. She yells at Della. Yelling is almost her only speed. She’s allowed few moments of nuance, and her hostility is framed against Della’s supposed sweetness. Della has all the institutional power and structural privilege in this situation. Her character is not the one who is experiencing racism and discrimination. Macy is the one who deserves empathy, but The Cake offers her almost none. Brunstetter also injects false equivalencies regarding intolerance. The play seems to ask, “Isn’t Macy’s liberal elitism just as bad as the religious right’s discrimination?” The answer is no, but you wouldn’t know that from The Cake.
Brunstetter also uses Macy and Jen’s queer, interracial relationship to centre white, Christian heterosexuality. Della’s actual reckoning is less a crisis of faith about how her intolerance is genuinely causing damage and hurt to Jen, a person she claims to love, and more about unpacking the ways patriarchal misogyny has limited her life and her own marriage for 30 years. Della doing this kind of work is genuinely compelling—and this is the moment in which Forsyth truly shines—but instead we get a play that ends up validating hate, because Della never has a real, meaningful change of heart that justifies in some small way all of the unchallenged bigotry in The Cake.
Yes, she interrogates her homophobia a bit, and ultimately makes the cake, but Della can’t bring herself to attend Macy and Jen’s wedding, and her final scene with Macy is jaw-droppingly awful. Macy brings Della a piece of the cake and apologizes to Della for the article getting her dropped from the baking competition, even though it was Della’s homophobia that actually got her axed. Della then gets to talk about how it all worked out for the best because her business is better than ever thanks to the people who rallied around her and supported her. According to Della, hatred supported her. People who believe it’s perfectly noble to discriminate based on sexuality are now the folks propping up her business. Della then gets to quote Scripture to Macy, who finally eats a bite of cake and rapturously declares, “Oh my god!”, to which Della smugly reminds Macy that yes, He is in the cake.
This play is billed as a comedy. It’s not. It’s deeply harmful to marginalized communities. It also made me hate cake.