Betsy West’s liberal friends were aghast when she took the role. They wanted to know how she could possibly play such a terrible person.
In “The Cake,” West plays Della, a North Carolina baker in a politically red town who doesn’t want to make a wedding cake for a younger female friend who is as close to her as a daughter — because the friend is marrying a woman.
The character’s beliefs are about as far from West’s as they could get. West doesn’t go to church, believes in marriage equality and voted for Hillary Clinton. The only thing more foreign to her would be playing a racist, she says.
But by getting into Della’s head for the Salt Lake Acting Company production, by finding empathy and the ways they are similar, West is mirroring what the playwright wants audience members to do.
“I don’t see her as the bad guy,” West says of Della, over biscuits and jam on a recent morning. “I love Della so much. Here is a woman guileless in her approach to life. She lives in a bubble.”
When she is confronted with an opposing view, West says, “she is really open to at least hearing other sides.”
The play, which debuted in 2017, mirrors a U.S. Supreme Court case in which a Colorado baker refused to bake a cake to celebrate a same-sex wedding. But Bekah Brunstetter, a writer and co-producer of NBC’s “This is Us,” has said she wrote the play to work through the conflict she feels between her current life among liberals in New York and Los Angeles and growing up in the Southern Baptist church in North Carolina.
Brunstetter told the Los Angeles Times: “I support gay marriage, but I see how painful it is for people to accept it when they have this belief system that has brought them comfort and joy and structure their entire lives. We on this side don’t give enough respect to that struggle.”
It’s why Della’s character isn’t a caricature. The audience is meant to like her, with her self-consciousness, loving attention to her elaborate cakes and schoolgirl giddiness over an upcoming appearance in the “Great American Baking Show.”
But from the start, political dividing lines emerge.
Della is making a Noah’s Ark cake, which would have included dinosaurs if she had room, for a baptism. She follows recipes and the rules. “You only live once and then it’s off to eternity!”
She tells this to Macy, a black woman visiting from Brooklyn who tells her sugar is as addictive as cocaine, wants soy for her coffee and doesn’t eat gluten or cake.
It turns out Macy is engaged to Jen, Della’s almost-daughter. Jen comes out to Della and hopes she will bake their wedding cake. When Della feigns that she’s too busy, the audience — the playwright assumes it will be a liberal one — is left to wrestle with how they feel about this character who they’ve hopefully come to like.
“I am open to change,” Della says. “I just, I can’t do it overnight. I got a brain and a heart at war.”
Della wrestles with her faith and her family ties while audience members may ask themselves: How do you find common ground when the stakes are so high and personal — or should you even try?
The play provides one answer: “I don’t respect these people,” Macy says in one scene, when Jen wants to hide from her family that they’ve slept together. When Della tells her gay marriage is “not what God intended,” Macy cries out, “Why do you hate me?”
After Della declines to bake the cake, Macy calls her a bigot and exposes her online — a familiar path to anyone with a Facebook account and a disgust for political opponents.
Latoya Cameron plays Macy and believes audiences will be rooting for her confrontational and unapologetic manner.
“She definitely feels the need to be heard in a world that she feels like she doesn’t belong in,” Cameron says. “The audience will say, ‘That’s my girl.’ But they will also go, ‘Oh, she’s not listening.’ Without listening, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
In another scene, Macy advocates another way: “You could change her,” she tells Jen. “If you don’t push her to change, then they never will.”
And Jen answers like so many keyboard activists: “Why does it have to be me? Why can’t it be a very a good article or a fictional character?”
Della is that fictional character — for liberal audiences.
As part of preparing to don Della’s apron and wield her offset spatula, West learned how to ice and decorate a cake at Flourish Bakery, which operates out of Salt Lake Community College. It trains and employs people who are recovering from substance use disorders, with the goal of preparing them for careers as pastry chefs.
West also tried to relate to Della by imagining her own daughter marrying a “flat-out racist” and how she would try to love the person while despising those beliefs.
And she went to a Sunday service at a local Southern Baptist Church. Attending helped her imagine being Della in a church. She pictured the pastor and his wife being Della’s friends. She better understood the strict gender roles that the play also explores.
“They were very kind and sincere. They are so sure of their beliefs. It confirmed for me Della’s strong belief and the poignancy of questioning that belief,” West says.
West has grown protective of Della, even defensive. “I’ve really focused more on her heart and her love and her struggle to not break the heart of her ‘daughter,’” West says.
“I’m more in Della’s head than I realized.”
CATCHING ’THE CAKE’
What • Playwright Bekah Brunstetter, a writer and co-producer of NBC’s ”This is Us,” explores the country’s political divisions in “Cake,” which debuted in 2017. Directed by Justin Ivie.
When • Through March 10 at Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City. Wednesdays–Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Additional performances: Feb. 16 at 2 p.m.; Feb. 19 and Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m.; March 2 at 2 p.m.
Tickets • saltlakeactingcompany.org or 801-363-7522
This coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. The Salt Lake Tribune makes all editorial decisions.