Pop Culture References in In the Upper Room

Adapted from Inside Out | Lynde Rosario, Editor and Reginald Edmund, Contributing Writer

Set in 1974, In the Upper Room tells the story of a multi-generational black family led by the family’s controlling and secretive matriarch, Rose Berry. But to understand the Berry family requires understanding the 1970s as well as the many pop culture references in the play.

a group of gay-rights activists holding posters in the 1970s

A gay-rights demonstration in New York’s Greenwich Village, June 8, 1977 (AP)

As America moved into the 1970s, marginalized groups such as women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community continued their fight for equality and rights while others protested the draft and the ongoing war in Vietnam. During this time, the civil rights movement continued to shine a light on the growing economic disparity between white and black Americans.

On television, sitcoms like “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Good Times” brought black families right into the homes of black and white citizens while expanding and exploring notions regarding black families, black identity, and the black community. On the airwaves, black musicians such as Donna Summer, The Jackson Five, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and ​​Gladys Knight and The Pips, were connecting with audiences across the color line.

black models stand with African sculptures wearing African clothing in the 70s

The Grandassa Models, New York, 1967, photographed by Kwame Brathwaite

As the “Black is Beautiful” empowerment movement took hold, the afro, perms, and the Jheri curl found their way into popular culture.

The play is chock full of other pop culture references; watch for the following:

        • Black is Beautiful – A cultural movement that began in the mid-1960s. It was a slogan created by African Americans in response to claims that black citizens were less attractive than whites and used to empower black people.
        • James Brown – Known as the “Godfather of Soul,” Brown was an American singer, songwriter, dancer, musician, record producer, and bandleader.
        • The Drinking Gourd – The Drinking Gourd is another name for the Big Dipper. It was used by escaping slaves so they would not get lost.
        • General Hospital” – An American daytime television soap opera. It is listed in Guinness World Records as the longest-running American soap opera.
        • Howdy Doody” – An American children’s television program with songs, sketches, games, and more. Buffalo Bob hosted with his puppet pal, Howdy Doody.
        • Mahalia Jackson – An African American gospel singer.
      Black model, Beverly Johnson, on the cover of American Vogue

      The cover of American Vogue with model Beverly Johnson, Photographed by Francesco Scavullo

        • JET Magazine – A magazine focusing on news, culture, and entertainment related to the African American community.
        • Beverly Johnson – An American model, actress, singer, and businesswoman who was the first African American model to appear on the cover of American Vogue in August 1974.
        • Grace Jones – A Jamaican American model, singer, songwriter, and actress.
        • Marilyn Monroe – A Caucasian American actress, model, and singer, who was a sex symbol in the 1950s and 1960s.
        • Huey P. Newton – Co-founder of the Black Panther Party.
        • Soul Train Line – A variant of the 1950s fad then known as The Stroll, in which all the dancers on the show “Soul Train” form two lines with a space in the middle for dancers to strut down and dance in consecutive order. Soul Train was an African American-focused music-dance television program that aired for 35 years, starting in 1971.
        • Lena Horne – An African American dancer, actress, singer, and civil rights activist.
        • Ouija Board – Also known as a spirit board or talking board, often used during a séance to communicate with the dead.
        • Rosa Parks – An African American activist in the civil rights movement best known for refusing to give up her seat during the Montgomery bus boycott.
        • Nubian Queen – A member of a group of dark-skinned peoples that formed a powerful empire between Egypt and Ethiopia from the 6th to the 14th centuries. In pop culture, this usually refers to an intelligent black woman with dark skin who overcomes any obstacle.

      Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross of The Supremes pose in pink dresses

      Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross of The Supremes, From the Motown Archives

  • Skin Whitening Cream – A cream used in an attempt to lighten the skin. Lighter-skinned African Americans were perceived to be more intelligent and skilled than dark-skinned African Americans during slavery.
  • The Supremes – The Supremes were an American female singing group and a premier act of Motown Records during the 1960s. Motown’s first and most commercially successful girl group.

In the Upper Room receives its world premiere February 11 – March 13, 2022.


In the Upper Room

Feb 11 – Mar 13, 2022 • Kilstrom Theatre