Seeing live, local theater is a piece of ‘The Cake’

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s online production of “The Cake” streams Thursday at 7 p.m. on PPT’s website and Facebook page.

A small town bakery becomes a battleground for marriage equality as family ties, religious identity and progressive values clash in the latest comedy from Pittsburgh Public Theater.

“The Cake” is part of PPT’s PlayTime series, which offers free online readings of plays every Thursday and Friday. Audiences can see “The Cake” Thursday at 7 p.m. on PPT’s website and Facebook page, and those who purchased tickets for a live PPT show before the venue closed were able to register for an exclusive Friday Q&A with playwright Bekah Brunstetter.

The four-person cast features Charlotte Booker as Della, a baker from North Carolina, and C. David Johnson as her husband, Tim. Della must reconsider her conservative worldview when her late friend’s daughter, Jen (Erika Strasburg), asks her to bake the cake for her same-sex wedding. Jen, on the other hand, struggles to meld her white, Southern Christian upbringing with her new life in Brooklyn alongside her nonreligious black fiancee, Macy (Sharina Martin).

Strasburg  — who also performed in PPT’s 2018 production of “Hamlet” and lives in New York City and Oakmont, just north of Pittsburgh — said the major conflict for Jen comes with confronting those two different worlds. Although she wants to respect her family, Jen also wants to support her partner, and must decide for herself where her values lie.

“She is really struggling with the ideals she was raised with and feeling like she needs to respect them,” Strasburg said. “She’s really straddling two very different worlds in which she loves both parties, and she’s having to confront some real ideals within herself.”

Meanwhile, Macy, an outsider to Jen’s conservative hometown, must learn to understand her fiancee’s upbringing and deal with new stressors in their relationship, Martin said.

“As her fiancee, my character has to support my love while still standing in the face of this opposition, this hatred and discrimination,” Martin said.

Martin — who, like her character, lives in Brooklyn, New York — also said Della’s major struggle in the play comes with the realization that her prejudiced views may actually hurt those she loves, something which she thinks serves as an important takeaway for audiences.

“I think right now the most dangerous idea is that my personal prejudices and my personal bigotries can be kept to myself. What this play really lays bare is that that’s not true,” Martin said. “I think that’s something that the main character, the cake-maker, Della, learns over the course of the play.”

PPT’s production of “The Cake” was announced in March 2019 and would have closed their 2019-20 season. But like many performing arts organizations across the country, PPT closed its Cultural District venue in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, during last week’s PlayTime, Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski said the Zoom show will feature the original cast, which Strasburg said was selected last summer. Strasburg said she’s hopeful, based on rehearsals, that the play will lend itself well to an online performance.

“I think it will translate really well, actually, to this Zoom online platform because the scenes are largely between two people, so it’s not difficult to follow,” Strasburg said. “When we’ve been rehearsing, we’re still able to feel as connected as we can, which is important for theater.”

Martin said the past few months have been difficult for the entire theater industry because of nationwide shutdowns, but online performances give her a means of sharing her work and hope for the future of her industry.

“It’s been hard, and it’s really scary,” Martin said. “But it’s nice to have an outlet like this to keep your hand in, and remind yourself that even through these times, theater is necessary and it will come back.”

Both actresses said they felt that the way in which “The Cake” confronts prejudice, including the racism that Macy endures from Jen’s conservative white family, resonates with the current political climate. With protests occurring in Pittsburgh and across the country after the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police, Strasburg said the issues that the play addresses are difficult to confront but important to discuss.

“We met [Monday] morning and read through it, and just after everything that happened this weekend you could feel a different weight,” Strasburg said. “You can’t deny what’s going on, and our theater touches on race in a big way.”

Martin stressed the importance of continuing to talk about racism and hate, even if those conversations make us uncomfortable. She said plays such as “The Cake” are a way to start discussions about difficult topics.

“It’s so important for us to keep talking and keep engaging with each other even when it’s hard and especially when it’s hard and especially when things are on fire,” Martin said. “I think that shows like this can help us start conversations.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said “The Cake” would be performed Wednesday at 7 p.m. The performance will be Thursday at 7 p.m. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Pitt News regrets this error.

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