‘In the Upper Room’ mixes humor and magic with all-too-real family drama

As family dramas go, this one is pretty damn funny. Beaufield Berry’s play about one chapter in the life of some of her relatives flirts with a bit of magic and plenty of inter-generational drama while telling the story of a Black family working through some long-suppressed secrets.

Along with Rattlesnake Kate, this is the second full production to come out of the 2019 New Play Summit that’s now playing at the Denver Center. Set in Omaha, In the Upper Room examines a moment in time in the 1970s when this part of the Berry family is at something of a crossroads. At the heart of it is bitchy, judge-y matriarch Rose (Chavez Ravine). She’s living with her son’s family along with her husband, Eddie (Levy Lee Simon), and as expected, it’s a bumpy ride as Rose tries to impart her own views and morals on every aspect of the family.

The in-the-round Kilstrom theatre has been converted into a thrust setup for this show, with one side of the space taken up by the upper level of the Berry home. Scenic designer Efren Delgadillo Jr. had some fun with ’70s style shag carpet, with two garish colors delineating Rose and Eddie’s bedroom from that of the two teenage daughters. It’s a nicely imagined set, with multiple levels that effectively open up the home for the audience to view the action.

For too long, we learn, Rose has been enabled by Eddie and her son John (Matthew Hancock). She’s a steamroller who’s used to getting her way, but when the women in the family start pushing back, it sets up a series of events that change the dynamic in unexpected ways.

Director Gregg T. Daniel has a great cast to work with, and he makes the most of the space to illustrate how a family home is its own character that can help hide things as well as turn a light on them. Berry’s script gains a lot of its power by its authentic dialogue, and when I interviewed her about this play in 2019, she said writing those Black voices from her own family comes naturally.

“Anytime you hear people talking a certain way growing up, those voices just stick with you,” she said. “Bringing them back to life was so fun, amazing and exciting. They just want to be heard.”

And heard they are. From the get-go, we see a Black family whose members don’t pull a lot of punches — except when it comes to Rose. The two girls fear and respect Rose, but in their shared bedroom we learn that they are not loved equally by grandma. Yvette (Kayla King) is the favorite, and older sister Josephine (Courtney A. Vinson) is convinced it’s because Yvette has lighter skin. It’s a suspicion confirmed later in a pivotal scene, where Rose punishes Josephine by rubbing a skin-lightening cream on her face.

The girls end up being at the center of the action as the generational struggle unfolds. Meanwhile, their mother Janet (Sydney Cole Alexander) is trying to shield them from Rose’s demands while pressuring John to confront his mother more forcefully.

The other two characters are a pair of hilarious aunts played by Yvette Monique Clark and Monnae Michaell. They act as comic relief at times, but they also have some greater perspective as relatives who don’t live in the main home. They think Rose is nuts, and they end up being instrumental in some of the events that lead to her dethroning.

In the Upper Room has plenty of familiar family-drama elements, but it’s also a uniquely Black story that, as a white guy, I found particularly intriguing. The flow of the dialogue itself is very different from what I heard in my own (equally fucked-up) home growing up, and the issues about race, skin color and Rose’s concerns about what white people might think were fascinating to hear.

Beaufield Berry told me this story is part of a cycle of plays she’s working on, examining different branches and time periods. In the Upper Room ends with a cliff-hanger that’s no doubt a hint at what comes next. I hope to see whatever that might be show up in Denver, because the playwright has clearly shown with this first installment that the Berry family is a rich vein of material; a revealing glimpse into Black lives in the 20th century that will, I imagine, spill into the 21st.