Brutally beautiful ‘Long Way Down’ triumphs at Olney Theatre Center

The world premiere musical is challenging, chilling, and charged with emotion as if lightning might strike.

Sometimes a show punches you in the gut even when you go in knowing the source material and fully aware that it’s not your grandfather’s musical. The world premiere of Long Way Down presented by the Olney Theatre Center is such a show. It’s challenging, chilling, and charged with emotion, sparking live-wire energy as if lightning might strike at any moment.

Long Way Down reckons with a reality of street rules when a loved one has been killed. When Will’s brother is slain, he must wrestle with the rules that he (and those before him) have respected and followed. No crying and no snitching are the first two. But it’s the third that thrusts Will into an abyss of anguished pain and misery: avenge the death. The entire story spans the 60 seconds it takes Will to ride in an elevator from the eighth floor to the lobby. He’s carrying a gun in his waistband, grief and anger by his sides. Will plans to kill his brother’s murderer, his traumatized psyche a jangle of random thoughts, as he descends floor by floor, joined on each one by ghosts from his past, each a former victim of gun violence.

Parris Lewis, Tyrese Shawn Avery, and Cheryse Dyllan in ‘Long Way Down.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The talented actors Tyrese Shawn Avery, Io Browne, Victor Musoni, Colin Carswell, Parris Lewis, Cheryse Dyllan, Quincy Vicks, and Naiqui Macabroad all excel in representing the moments, characters, and understandings of the lives that unfold before us.

Under Ken-Matt Martin’s capable direction, Long Way Down moves at a breakneck, breathless pace. The immersive performance forces you to question assumptions about the lives behind the statistics and the ready dismissals about the perpetrators and victims of gun violence.

The overall production design is outstanding. For example, Simean Carpenter’s set features a life-sized fabricated elevator complete with buttons. The open view of Will and Shawn’s bedroom wall displays a photo of Allen Iverson going to the hoop. Metal risers suggest cages echoing the elevator cage, and perhaps the mentally confining existence of the apartment’s inhabitants. Costume designs (Danielle Preston) portray the characters true to their essence and era. For example, Mike’s hair is covered by a knotted stocking cap (keeping his hair “tight”), and Uncle Mark wears a cap emblazoned with the name “Bullets.” (Old-school Washingtonians will recognize it as the former name of the Washington Wizards, who were known as the Washington Bullets from 1974 to 1997.)

Book/lyricist/composer Dahlak Brathwaite and Khiyon Hursey (additional writing) have created a narrative masterpiece. Their predominantly hip-hop storytelling is complex and nuanced. The language is rich. The poetry is powerful. The rhythms are varied with echoes of gospel, R&B, and Michael Jackson slipped in too.

I’ve read Jason Reynolds’ 2017 award-winning novel-in-verse, Long Way Down. The Olney Theatre’s R&B and hip-hop musical adaption allowed me to engage with the story with an added sense of urgency and immediacy. It put me inside Will’s head and forced me to feel his escalating tension and confusion as he traveled down, down, down. There are numerous showstoppers. One comes early from Io Browne, as Will’s mom. Her performance of “The Cry #1” completely blew me away. Tyrese Shawn Avery (Will) takes us on a journey to the lobby that is heartbreaking. His grief is palpable. His confusion is plausible. But his reality is undeniable because “The Rules” are inviolate. Why? Will tells us: “They weren’t meant to be broken. They were meant for the broken to follow.” As Will, Avery’s performance is a tour de force of believability through gesture, singing, movement, and soulfulness. He is stunning.

Music direction (Cedrick Lyles) and sound design (Kevin Lee Alexander) are stupendous. The prowess of the live accompaniment backing the book and lyrics is top shelf. It seamlessly switched multiple styles, tempos, and genres of the Black American music tradition, delivering an exuberant hip-hop and rap (predominantly) sound explosion. Harkening to some of the earlier time frames referenced in the show, if mixtapes of the show had been for sale they would have sold out.

TOP: Victor Musoni (co-choreographer with director Ken-Matt Martin); ABOVE: Parris Lewis and Tyrese Shawn Avery, (up top:) Quincy Vicks, Colin Carswell, and Naiqui Macabroad, in ‘Long Way Down.’ Photos by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The choreography (Ken-Matt Martin and Victor Musoni) is exceptional. It reflects and amplifies the dynamics between the characters on the stage from push and pull to tension, with characters circling one another as thoughts swirl in Will’s mind. It is moving and masterful. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the joyous couple dance between Io Browne (Shari) and Quincy Vicks (Mike) is infectious and synchronized.

Olney Theatre’s Long Way Down is brutally beautiful. Opening night with Jason Reynolds in attendance was a triumph concluding with a sustained standing ovation. I highly recommend this haunting production. Approach it with an open mind. Depart it with an open if wounded heart.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Long Way Down plays through June 23, 2024, at Olney Theatre Center, Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Tickets ($55–$90) are available online or through the box office at 301-924-3400, open from 12 pm – 6 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students (for details click here).

The program for Long Way Down can be viewed here.

COVID Safety: Face masks are recommended but no longer required to attend events in any Olney Theatre Center performance spaces.

Long Way Down
Book, music, and lyrics by Dahlak Brathwaite
Additional writing by Khiyon Hursey
Adapted from the bestselling novel by Jason Reynolds
Co-choreographed by Ken-Matt Martin and Victor Musoni
Directed by Ken-Matt Martin
Music direction by Cedric Lyles

Tyrese Shawn Avery (Will), Io Browne (Shari), Victor Musoni (Shawn), Colin Carswell (Frick), Parris Lewis (Buck), Cheryse Dyllan (Dani), Quincy Vicks (Mike), Naiqui Macabroad (Mark).

Piano / Conductor: Cedric Lyles
Bass: J Anthony Dix
Percussion: Evander McLean

Scenic and Lighting Design: Simean Carpenter
Costume Design: Danielle Preston
Music Programmer: Nick Hernandez
Sound Design: Kevin Lee Alexander
Stage Manager: Robbie Armstrong III


  1. What a fabulous review!! I saw the show in previews and it’s a POWERFUL on so many levels. If any show is a must-see at this moment– A LONG WAY DOWN at Olney Theatre is it.


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