By John M. Hayden
Cake has a checkered history. It’s a ubiquitous treat at birthdays, going away parties, and other celebrations. It also led to Marie Antoinette’s date with the guillotine. These days the dessert is at the center of the civil rights movement. Searching for ways to protest marriage equality, some bakers refuse to bake cakes for gay or lesbian couples tying the knot. The issue is deeply personal to anyone involved, and at this point most people know where they stand on the issue and aren’t open to changing their minds. It’s against that seemingly implacable backdrop that the play The Cake is set. Just in time for the holidays, it runs December 5-22, 2019, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County and will give us all something to talk about over dessert and coffee.
Margaret Leford’s directing the play and told us a little bit about the characters and the challenges of bringing their story to life. “We meet Della, a North Carolina baker, on the day her best friend’s daughter, Jen, comes home announcing her engagement and asked Della to bake her wedding cake.” Seems reasonable, but Margaret tells us, there’s a twist. “Upon finding out Jen is engaged to Macy, a woman, Della says she is too busy to bake the cake. And that is scene one.”
Since the attitudes and actions of the main characters are established so quickly, it leaves lots of time to look at what drives them. “From there, the play explores how this hastily made choice affects Della (and her husband Tim) and Jen and Macy. This play really examines both sides of the issue with humanity, truth, and humor, believe it or not.” It would be easy for this type of story to be a black and white, right and wrong morality play, but Margaret says the point is to avoid that type of simplicity. “None of us are perfect nor are these characters, but the play allows the characters to explore their own truths, where their belief systems come from, how they formed, and how to be better in the ways that they can.”
That is what makes Jen and Della compelling characters. Margaret says Della is more than a two-dimensional woman, blindly withholding her flour and fondant from gays. “Della is a southern, middle aged woman who has walked the path she has been taught and believes, mostly. She is not uneducated, but her life and her choices to this point have not proved challenging to her beliefs. She has not had to swim against the current or even really acknowledge that there are other ways to go.” Being confronted leads to a moment of questioning and reckoning with a lifetime of beliefs. “This play finds Della meeting a new, unexpected obstacle in the form of this precious and treasured child of her best friend. Della begins to re-examine who she is and sees things in a new light, discovering she has been on the brink of self discovery for longer than she knew. Though Della is the main character of the play, each character has to face themselves, their own choices, and make their own discoveries of self as well.
Jen faces her own challenges as well. “Not only is she trying to live up to her dead mother’s expectations of the perfect wedding, but also Jen struggles with the understanding, which Della confirms, that her mother would not approve of this union.” That leads to some existential reflecting. “Jen is torn between her southern roots, her instilled and installed belief system, and the world she is exploring in NYC, the lesbian culture she finds herself in the middle of when falling in love with Macy. She feels displaced in both places and seeks to reconcile the duality within herself.”
Even though most people already have an opinion, Margaret hopes the show starts a discussion. “It is only through good discussion and conversation that we can begin to understand what we do not know or understand, what puzzles us, or what we have yet to explore.” The key to success on a topic like this is engaging, not alienating, the audience, but she says that’s a way to find our similarities. “At our core, we are all the same: we have hopes, fears, people, or things we love, and people or things we are afraid to lose. When we can recognize those qualities, these inherent attributes, in a character on stage or the person sitting next to us, we have a place of commonality from which to draw.” It’s that recognition that moves the conversation. “If we can recognize our own selves in another person, then we might be able to understand where the differences of opinion come from, as we have walked different paths in life. We might not be able to change a person’s opinion, but may open their mind and heart to those who haven’t been formed or informed in the same way. So, it is through the recognition of a fellow person’s humanity that we can have these conversations and, hopefully, understanding and compassion.”