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Olney Theatre’s ‘Long Way Down’ tackles gun violence with musical on haunted elevator

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Long Way Down' at Olney Theatre (Part 1)

It can be a long way down if you’re taking a haunted elevator on a journey through a cycle of gun violence.

Olney Theatre stages "Long Way Down." (Courtesy Olney Theatre)

That’s the premise of which makes its world premiere at Olney Theatre now through June 23.

“It’s easy to think that it’s a play about gun violence, but in reality it’s a play about this young Black man navigating his journey of grief,” Director Ken-Matt Martin told WTOP. “Also, this community that we often think of as just perpetrators or victims of gun violence are these nameless people, and yet they are actual people who lived. … It focuses on humanizing those folks instead of just looking at them as just numbers on a page or TV screen.”

Based on the Newbery Award-winning novel by D.C. native Jason Reynolds, the groundbreaking musical follows a young man named Will (Tyrese Shawn Avery), who loses his brother Shawn (Victor Musoni) to gun violence.

“There are three rules in his community: you don’t cry, you don’t snitch, and if someone you love is killed, you avenge their death,” Martin said. “After Will’s brother is killed, he gets on the elevator with the intent to follow that third rule with his brother’s gun. … On his way down to the first floor, he encounters the ghosts of people who he’s lost in his life to gun violence, both people that he actually knew and people from his community.”

Martin teams with Musoni to choreograph the dance numbers with some pretty high-tech visuals.

“We have an actual elevator, which lights up, smokes and moves on hydraulics, goes up and down, all these fun things that we’ve choreographed dance numbers to,” Martin said. “It all takes place on the elevator, but the way that the musical works, there are some flashbacks to memories that the ghosts use to try to influence or empower him to do one thing or another, so there are moments that we come out of the elevator.”

The music and lyrics are by Dahlak Brathwaite, who also co-writes the dialogue with Khiyon Hursey.

“It is a full-blown musical, there are 20 songs,” Martin said. “‘You’ve Got It In You’ is pretty descriptive of ghosts taunting him about whether he has it in him or not to do this deed. ‘The Cry’ is an incredible song which [the mom] sings to show a manifestation of her grief. … Then there’s another song ‘Play It Out,’ which includes the whole cast where the ghost of Will’s uncle comes to visit; he was a filmmaker, so it’s influenced by Cali-hip-hop swag.”

While there may be some California flavor, there is plenty of DMV inspiration from source author Reynolds, who was born in D.C., grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland and graduated from the University of Maryland in College Park.

“He’s been really wonderful and supportive,” Martin said. “He’s just a good guy who cares deeply about young people reading and even more importantly about young Black boys and Black men being able to have a full range of emotions and knowing that it’s OK for us to experience them and show them. That’s really what the play is about.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Long Way Down' at Olney Theatre (Part 2)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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