From ‘This is Us’ to ‘The Cake,’ Bekah Brunstetter Has a Full Plate

In addition to staging her latest play, which has already garnered rave reviews and has runs scheduled in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; La Jolla, Calif.; and Houston, Ms. Brunstetter has spent the last couple of years writing for two of the hottest shows on TV: “American Gods,” the Starz series based on the acclaimed fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, and “This Is Us,” the award-winning NBC dramedy on which she’s also a producer.

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Chrissy Metz as Kate in “This Is Us.”

Credit
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

That heartbreaking scene in “This Is Us” where the young, plump Kate gets that mean note from the other little girls, saying they don’t want to play with her any more? “That happened to me in elementary school,” Ms. Brunstetter said. “I was a really fat kid, and I was given that note at lunch.” She continued, “I will never forget that.”

But as a writer, she admits, you kind of want that awful pain: grist for the mill, and all that. With “The Cake,” she drew a lot from her own experiences growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., alongside three brothers, all who served or are serving in the Marines, and attending a Southern Baptist church, which she said was all about love, “not the fire and brimstone kind.”

In the play, Jen (Shannon Lucio) returns to her hometown in North Carolina to marry Macy (Carolyn Ratteray), an African-American New Yorker who doesn’t eat gluten (and, hence, cakes) and doesn’t particularly care for the South. When Jen enlists Della (Debra Jo Rupp), who loves baking and Jen almost as much as she loves Jesus, to create her wedding cake, it nearly kills Della to say no.

“The Dellas of the world are wonderful, loving people,” Ms. Brunstetter said. “I want Jen and Macy to be full human beings, and I want us to root for their love. But there are lots of plays and movies about Jen and Macy. There really aren’t very many about Della.”

Ms. Ratteray agreed. “I’m queer and I’m black, so of course I side with Macy,” she said. “But you definitely feel for Della, and I think it’s because Bekah wrote her with such incredible humanity and heart.”

The show grew out of the Echo Playwrights Lab, where aspiring playwrights, many of them already writing for TV shows, are required to produce 10 new pages of script a month.

Ms. Brunstetter, 35, is no newbie, having been frequently produced Off Broadway. For “The Cake,” she pulled from a variety of interests: her love for the BBC reality series “The Great British Bake Off” (in the play, Della dreams of competing on a mythical American version of the show); her own impending wedding (she was married in the Blue Ridge Mountains in October); and Paula Deen, the disgraced former Food Network star.

“I’m fascinated by stories where somebody said this stupid thing, and then all of a sudden, we all hate them, they’re horrible people,” she said. “I always have sympathy for them, because I say stupid things all the time. I’m probably saying something stupid right now.”

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Carolyn Ratteray, left, and Shannon Lucio in a scene from the play “The Cake.”

Credit
Darrett Sanders

The play was a way for Ms. Brunstetter to have a conversation with her parents about gay marriage without actually doing so. “I’ve tried to talk to them about why I support gay marriage and why I support my gay friends, and those conversations never really go anywhere,” she said. “I’m horrible at arguments. But when I’m writing a scene, I get to say what I wish I had said.”

Ms. Brunstetter is a lot like Jen, the lead character, which creates added challenges for Ms. Lucio. “It’s not her biography we’re telling, but it’s very personal to her, so you want to get it right,” she said. “But on the other hand, it’s great, because I have a living, breathing human to watch and observe.”

Jennifer Chambers, the director, who worked with Ms. Brunstetter on the play from its earliest days at the Playwrights Lab, knew that she had a strong drama from the start. “But I can’t tell you how many times we went, I wonder if this is still relevant?” she said. “Because it really did feel like, culturally, we were moving away from this. And then Trump became president, and the show has taken on a whole other tone.”

Ms. Brunstetter has several more projects in the works, including her first full-length for New York’s Theater Breaking Through Barriers; at the end of this month, “Camp Wanatachi: In Concert” (she was a co-writer of the book) will be performed at the New York Musical Festival.

She’s also working on three new musicals. One is a piece with Karen O, the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, called “Hearts Beat So Loud”; another is an R&B musical co-written by Cinco Paul (a writer of the “Despicable Me” series), about a young Mary Magdalene falling in love with a teenage Jesus. “I’ve actually already written a few plays about Jesus as a teenager,” she said, “so I had some material all ready to go.”

But “The Cake,” and cakes, will always hold a special place in her heart.

“I find cooking and baking so relaxing,” she said. Her dream — it’s actually a note on the final page of her script — is that there will be cake for audience members at the end of each performance. “It just really brings people together,” she said.

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