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'In The Upper Room' Play World Premiers In Denver, Reimagining How Black Actors Are Portrayed On Stage

DENVER (CBS4) – The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is helping redefine and reimagine the way Black Americans are portrayed and casted in the performing arts. It is hosting the world premiere of "In The Upper Room," a new play currently showing at the Kilstrom Theater.

The show spends a little more than two hours showcasing a Black family's journey through the 1970s, combining drama and comedy with a dabble of mysticism.

"Often times, in the birth of theater as we know it in this country, Black life has been depicted as a very certain kind of thing," said Matthew Hancock, one of the stars of the performance.

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(credit: DCPA)

Hancock, and his costar Sydney Cole Alexander, sat down with CBS4's Dillon Thomas ahead of their four week stay at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The duo talked about how their passion for the arts and remolding the way African Americans experience the performing arts was made possible in-part by the support of the DCPA.

"They are one of the preeminent voices of theater in this country," Hancock said.

The set brings audiences inside the home of The Berry Family. Seats inside the auditorium were removed so that ticket holders could truly feel immersed in the family's home, where some of the audience are sitting in the family's living room while others are placed closer to the kitchen or the bedroom.

"The play itself is the joy of the Black family. It is a lot of dancing, a lot of laughter," Hancock said.

"It is so real, so honest and so raw," Cole Alexander said.

"And human," Hancock added.

Cole Alexander said she was thrilled to see her fellow cast members represented so many different shades of skin. She said often times productions will cast Black actors to fill a role though the character may be better portrayed by a different shade of skin tone.

"The one very beautiful thing about our show that we have so many different shades of blackness. You are going to see yourself somewhere on the stage," Hancock said.

"I loved that I was appropriately cast for my skin color." Cole Alexander said.

While "In The Upper Room" is about the struggles, triumphs and thrills of being a part of the Black family unit in the 1970's, both Cole Alexander and Hancock said people of all ages and backgrounds can connect with the characters.

"I think the play is both hilarious and devastating, simultaneously," Cole Alexander said.

"You will sense the traumas of racism in this family. But, I think what is so magnificent about this story is the amount of joy this family displays even in their hard times," Hancock said.

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(credit: DCPA)

The show first premiered in 2019 and was given the Edgerton New Play Award. However, the COVID-19 pandemic postponed its rollout until Denver opened their stage in 2022.

While music iconic to the 1970s is incorporated, and there are plenty of dance scenes, the show is not a musical.

Those in the cast said they appreciated the way the writer, Beaufield Barry, incorporated Black history, tragedy, strength and even mysticism into the show.

"I felt like this play touched on Black mental health and generational trauma," Cole Alexander said. "And how, if you don't address generational trauma, it trickles down through the family. But, (In The Upper Room) isn't just about Black trauma. It is about Black love (and) Black families."

"I have never seen anything like this show before," Hancock said.

"It felt so relatable to me, I felt like I knew exactly how this woman feels," Cole Alexander said. "And that is what life is like."

Tickets for "In The Upper Room" ranger from $35 to $73.

"There is no way, Black or white, that you cannot fuse yourself to a character," Hancock said.

"Everyone can walk away after seeing this performance and see a piece of themselves or their families inside of this play," Cole Alexander said.

"Once you are sitting here, you are sitting in the house, and you are part of the family," Hancock said.

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