‘The Cake’ at a time when they just won’t let them eat cake

Emma Messenger plays Della, a popular Florida baker who’s in for a surprise in ‘The Cake.’ Photo by Michael Ensminger.

For playwright Bekah Brunstetter, the real-life Colorado bakery case makes for a personal rather than political play

Denver’s Curious Theatre Company opens its 2018-19 season on Saturday with a timely new play called The Cake, which was inspired by the Colorado-based Masterpiece Cakeshop case that recently went before the Supreme Court.

That’s the story of Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex-couple from Lakewood who became snarled in a legal battle with a baker who refused to make them a wedding cake because they are gay. But playwright Bekah Brunstetter says that is not her play’s story.

“I knew that a couple had been refused the service of a wedding cake. I know it happened a couple of other times as well,” Brunstetter said of her inspiration for writing The Cake. “But I didn’t look too much into the real-life story before I wrote my play because I didn’t want it to simply copy that.

Andrew Garfield referenced the Supreme Court case at the 2018 Tony Awards.

“There are a million articles you can read online about everything now, but it’s really hard to get the real human perspective in a Huffington Post article that you read on Facebook. I didn’t want my play to be didactic. So I just went to the human beings in the story.”

In the real-life story, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission cited Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips for discrimination. By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court later reversed that decision, saying the Commission violated Phillips’ First Amendment rights by forcing him to express a view that was counter to his religious beliefs. But because the Supreme Court did not rule on the broader intersection of anti-discrimination laws, free exercise of religion and freedom of speech, the six-year-old case is far from over. And its place in the national pop conversation was secured at the Tony Awards when Andrew Garfield referenced the Supreme Court ruling in his acceptance speech. “We are all sacred and we all belong, so let’s just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked,” Garfield said.

Emma Messenger and Alaina Beth Reel.

The Cake tells the story of a New York woman named Jen who wants to get married in her small North Carolina hometown. When Jen asks her late mother’s best friend, Della, to bake the cake, she is overjoyed to comply — until she realizes this is a wedding with two brides. Brunstetter’s story does not involve a legal challenge. It involves a family conflict where longtime friends and neighbors are forced her to re-examine their deeply held beliefs.

This new stage production of The Cake marks the Curious Theatre mainstage debuts of actors Emma Messenger, who has won three Henry Awards in the past five years, as Della; and Alaina Beth Reel as  Jen. Reel just starred in a DCPA Education trapeze-based master-class project called Orlando, Sarah Ruhl’s dreamy adaptation of the famous Virginia Woolf tale. Jada Suzanne Dixon, who plays Macy in The Cake, has appeared in DCPA Theatre Company productions of black odyssey, Fences and Gem of the Ocean.

Brunstetter is also a staff writer on the hit NBC series “This is Us.” She often addresses issues of Christianity and faith in her plays, but she’s more interested in people than politics. Brunstetter is known for weaving humor into her plays on serious topics.

“I am not a research-driven playwright, because I can get bogged down in that,” said Brunstetter, 36. “I just try to get the human stuff out first — and then I rely on a handful of really smart dramaturgs to help me get the texture right.”

Brunstetter, who was raised in the Southern Baptist church in Winston-Salem, N.C., was speaking through Skype to an audience that had gathered for an April performance of her play Going to a Place Where You Already Are by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company. That play addresses Brunstetter’s concept of heaven — her inability to believe in it, and her inability to let go of the idea of it. She’s now working on a musical about a young Mary Magdalene falling in love with a teenage Jesus.

Last summer, Debbie Munn, the mother of Charlie Craig, reached out to Brunstetter because she had read about The Cake, and they have since struck up a sort of friendship. “They all wanted to see the play, or at least read it,” Brunstetter said. “This woman is a Christian with a gay son, and she has written some beautiful op-eds about her experience.”

In a 2017 essay for Time Magazine, Munn writes of how she accompanied her son and his fiancé to their initial appointment at Masterpiece Cakeshop. “We were just turned away, without even discussing what kind of cake they might want, because they are two men who love one another,” Munn wrote.

“The next morning, I called the bakery to ask a question I had not asked him the day before: Why? Why did he turn away my son and his fiancé? He said he is a Christian and did not believe in same-sex commitment celebrations or marriages. I told him I am a Christian, too, and that my God teaches us to love one another, to not judge. I asked him, ‘How can you turn away two of God’s children?’ ”

Jada Suzanne Dixon and Alaina Beth Reel in ‘The Cake.’ Photo by Michael Ensminger.

Landing a writing position on one of the most popular shows on television is limiting Brunstetter’s ability to write new plays. But there is an upside.

“The good news is that I now have a house that I bought, which I never had before,” she said with a laugh. “I left grad school with a massive amount of debt, and to be able to make a living writing is just beyond my wildest dreams, and I still can’t believe it.

“Writing for television is hugely collaborative storymaking, so I don’t necessarily see my TV work as mine. That’s why it’s really important to me to have theatre projects going on because that’s where I’m fully myself. We work on the show for about 10 months a year, and then my time off is for theatre. I am very lucky that I can do both.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter


The Cake: Ticket information

  • Presented by Curious Theatre Company
  • 1-Aug. 13
  • 1080 Acoma St.
  • Tickets $30-$44
  • 303-623-0524 or curioustheatre.org

Alaina Beth Reel just starred in DCPA Education’s trapeze-based master-class Project ‘Orlando.’ Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Cast and crew:

  • Emma Messenger: Della
  • Michael Morgan: Tim
  • Alaina Beth Reel: Jen
  • Jada Suzanne Dixon: Macy
  • Chip Walton: Director
  • Phoebe Sacks: Stage Manager
  • Richard Devin: Lightning Designer
  • Jason Ducat: Sound Designer
  • Meghan Anderson Doyle: Costume Designer
  • Donna Kanne: Props Designer