Playwright Dana Leslie Goldstein, whose new Off B’way musical, “Liberty,” has just released its cast album, shares a few words about her delicious new play:
Are you a dessert person? I’m not actually a dessert person at all. And when I do eat dessert, I prefer things that are bitter or tart (think really dark chocolate or sour fruit). I’m also the kind of person who can’t relax until after the work is finished, so my lack of interest in dessert is probably appropriate to my personality. The title of the play is a quote from the late mom of a dear friend. The play itself is dedicated to three particular women and the moms who they recently lost. More on that below.
What inspired you to write Eat Dessert First? Is that something you like to do? Not too long ago, my mother and I had the bittersweet experience of sorting through and emptying my grandmother’s apartment, where she had lived for about seventy years. We found ledger books that contained notes to us. The notes weren’t advice, like the notes in my play, and the books themselves weren’t cookbooks, but I had the distinct feeling that my grandmother was speaking to us from beyond death. I love those notes. Similarly, my sister-in-law, who is a very good cook, has the cookbooks of her own late mother. Her mother didn’t write to her directly, but she did take notes in the margins, and my sister-in-law cherishes those cookbooks because of the notes. Finally, the title of the play “Eat Dessert First” is a quote from the late mom of a very close friend. She was a woman who said many funny, profound and surprising things and was part of a generation who had to break from societal expectations to live as the feisty, political and seemingly indomitable person she was meant to be. She had been a cabaret singer and a city councilwoman, and everyone called her Hank. She was inspirational. I melded details from these three mother-daughter relationships, along with some fiction, to create the mother and daughter in the play.
How did the play change for you during the writing process? When I began writing Eat Dessert First, it was essentially monologs taking place in two separate decades and two separate kitchens: the mother’s and the daughter’s. The mother’s story began with her wedding and ended when she left her husband and children. The daughter’s story began when she got the call that her mother had passed away, and ended some ten years later. It included her getting married, having children, her home renovated, job stress, etc., all without the support of her mother being alive to help her through it. The two women didn’t interact at all – they were living in different decades and cooking in different kitchens – until the final moment of the play, when the mother “crosses over” into the daughter’s kitchen as the daughter finally opens the mother’s jello mold and discovers the old cookbook hidden there. I knew from the beginning that I wanted the mother to be leaving notes for her daughter in the cookbook, and that the daughter wouldn’t find the cookbook until the very end of the play. But the journey to that moment is very different now. Though it includes flashbacks to her childhood, the daughter’s story now takes place over the course of just a few days spent packing up her mother’s house. And in those few, much more immediate days, she goes through many stages of grief, eventually finding some compassion for her mother’s choices. She begins to be satisfied with what there is.
What’s the most fun part about seeing it on stage? I love watching the daughter (and this is thanks to Mary Ruth’s performance) gradually discover things about her mother, as well as the depth of her own emotion toward her mom. She doesn’t expect this to be a difficult experience; she’s got it under control. She’s wrong about that, but by the end of the play, she isn’t sorry that she was wrong. The daughter finds something unexpected, that she can hold onto, and take with her into her own adult life.