If you’re feeling effervescent at the end of the world premiere of “In the Upper Room” at the Denver Center, it’s probably because you’ve been a powerfully absorbed fly on the wall of the Berry house for a few hours.
After all, to peek into someone’s home is to see its inhabitants in their uncensored, often tainted glory, to witness their messy selves. And there’s a lot of sass and not a small measure of pain in middle-class, Omaha, Neb., the house where John and Janet Berry live with daughters Josephine and Yvette and John’s parents, Eddie and Rose, toward the mid 1970s.
Ah, Rose, by any other name, she’d smell too… well, honestly, Rose Berry doesn’t live up to any of the well-worn sayings about the bud. She’s more than a little tangy and knows how to make an entree. It’s her muffled cry as she rummages through a letterbox that kicks off playwright Beaufield Berry’s family drama about secrets and lies, generational trauma and multigenerational drama.
Played by Chavez Ravine, Rose has the haughty demeanor befitting a family matriarch who is more intimidating than nurturing. When she descends from the room of the title of the piece, the activity tends to be silent, or even cease altogether. As imposing as she is, she spends an inordinate amount of time in front of her dressing table.
A bit like a certain queen of the Grimms’ fairy tale, something is eating away at her. It’s not age versus youth, so much as light versus dark. She adores her fair-skinned granddaughter, Yvette, and gives Josephine, Yvette’s darker sister, her most mediocre treatment. But why?
The answers – for there are no simple ones – allow for a witty and wise exploration of the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of colorism in the black community.
Under the smooth direction of Gregg T. Daniel, the set navigates the multi-level house and layers of reveal of the room with grace, gravity, and satisfying playful touches. There are threads to unwind and music on the stereo to cut a shag rug. Rose’s husband, Eddie (Levy Lee Simon), is a straightforward and hard-working man, but even he has secrets.
Son John (played with upbeat vigor by Matthew Hancock) is an enthusiastic dancer, stutterer and storyteller. Sydney Cole Alexander is terrific as Janet, the wife and mother who balances respect for her stepmother while fiercely protecting her daughters.
Equally protective are Janet’s sisters, Jackie and Delores (played to warm and hilarious effect by Yvette Monique Clark and Monnae Michaell). They fend off Rose’s imperiousness and deliver “In the Upper Room” with sly laughs. They pray hard and play hard.
Kayla King and Courtney A. Vinson bring pizzazz and pathos to siblings who, though they look like their parents’ children, don’t look alike. Even so, they remain tightly bonded as they try to make sense of and play down their grandmother’s inexplicable favoritism and dislike. This rose is a rose is a toxin.
Rose seems to have everyone in the house under her thumb, if not a spell. The playwright teases how dark that fate could be when the girls disobey their grandmother and bring a Ouija board into the house to consult the spirits about Rose’s mysterious roots.
Thanks to beautiful directing – and the playwright’s interest in surreal and magical stories – things get a little heated.
Given the title of the piece, it’s no surprise that designer Efren Delgadillo’s setting is itself a living character. Still, it’s a challenge to make the best use of the circular space at the Denver Center (renamed the Kilstrom Theater). This set – with the side-by-side bedrooms of Rose and her granddaughter on the risers and the family gathering places on the first level – does so in a significant way.
“In the Upper Room” ends pretty much as it begins. To say more would be to spoil a bold move, the one that had an audience member exclaim out loud, “Oh, my God!” Which, far from boring, said something the rest of the opening night audience probably felt.
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