Filing into the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater, the first thing you notice is the stage below. It’s bare except for a shiny, white screen centered at the space’s rear; the stage floor’s trapezoidal shape has been constricted into especially dramatic dimensions, with its back two corners calved off by a pair of larger screen panels. With a patterned rug projected onto the scrap of floor that remains, the sense that you’re looking down a long hallway is overwhelming.
Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, a Young Adult novel in which a teen decides if he’ll murder the person who killed his brother, opens in this same hallway. And once the play begins, that solo screen in the rear will become an oversized set of elevator doors. The pair of larger screens will swing in at even sharper angles, constricting Will, the story’s hero and the production’s sole player, into a space more claustrophobic still—even as all three screens begin to spring alive with more projections that reflect what’s going on in Will’s head.
For those wondering how anyone could adapt Jason Reynolds’ award-winning novel in verse to the stage, this minimalist production—minimalist not just in the set design, but in the choice to forego any physical props, as well as to cast D.C.-based powerhouse Justin Weaks as both Will and all six ghosts who visit him—is the answer. Where some might have taken Reynolds’ powerful internal story and exploded it into a feast for the senses, dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers and director Timothy Douglas opted to concentrate the story’s power within the triangle of Reynolds’ words, Weaks’ performance and the audience’s full attention.
“I like that they chose the harder route,” Reynolds tells Paste after the second of two opening day performances on October 27th. “It forces the audience to push themselves a bit; you’ve gotta imagine. I like that they didn’t choose to use any prop guns or any of that stuff. I found it to be a little more powerful to have it be like—” Reynolds makes a gun with his fingers, imitating Weaks’ performance, “—especially if your actor can pull it off. I mean, you’ve got a guy there, and every time he would slip into Dani [one of the ghosts], her posture, her voice, it’s brilliant! It takes a certain kind of ingenuity and a certain kind of courage to see if you can pull off a seven-person play with a single person. [And] I think there’s something about using space, and if you have seven people in that tiny space, it changes the tension of the play. But one person in a small space, playing seven people? You get to actually live in that elevator with him!”
If Reynolds sounds like an excited fan, that’s because he is.
“I gave it all away,” he explains, when asked about the process of adapting the novel to the stage. “I told them I needed to have a conversation with the dramaturg and the director about some of the nuances and some of the Easter eggs in the book, because I needed to make sure that they understood all of these tiny, tiny details that you could just read right over. [But] I’m not a playwright or a director or an actor. The greatest gift of collaboration is to trust your partners and to trust their abilities, and so I gave it away.”
Douglas and Green-Rogers—who, along with Weaks, worked together for one intensive week in the summer to decide how they wanted to bring the adaptation to life—had little interest in straying from Reynolds’ vision. There had to trim some content to fit the story on stage, but otherwise, as Douglas tells Paste before the show begins, every word is directly lifted from Reynolds’ novel.
“In [one] sense, it’s a memory play,” Douglas says. “Like with telling any of the compelling—and I’ll even say traumatic—stories that all humans experience, when we’re in the mode of telling it the first time after it happened, we re-experience it. In essence, it is like it is happening for the first time, and that lends itself to a theatrical telling.”
Beyond Long Way Down’s natural theatricality as source material, there’s inherent power in Reynolds’ words. “Jason has an authentic way of voicing Black American youth that acknowledges the traumas and tragedies that are all too present in current events,” Douglas continues, “but he leads with the humanity of it—[the fact] that there’s an individual that is experiencing, absorbing and reacting to said trauma.”
Asking the public to reckon with Will’s humanity is one of the production’s central raisons d’être, a task it accomplishes not just once the lights go down, but both before and after each performance with guest speakers engaging the audience in critical conversation about what’s happening on stage. The moderator at the performance Paste attended opened by asking the audience to keep the words empathy and violence in mind as the play progressed. The words possess different meanings, but both are things that we do to others. “Who do we give empathy to when we witness violence?” she asked.
Audience participation tipped slightly in favor of adults at this performance, but it’s young people whom the production is meant to serve.
“The majority of our preview audiences have been students,” Douglas says of the production, which is suggested for audiences 12 and up. “It’s a complicated story, but we have a program to talk back after. What is abundantly clear is they are with it, and that’s the most important thing.”
The fact that audience members of all ages are enraptured by this adaptation of Long Way Down, though, comes back to the production, itself—namely, the dope (to use Reynolds’ word) visuals projected on the elevator’s walls and Weaks’ transcendent physicality in all seven roles.
There are too many highlights in the play’s 65 minutes to recount in full, but Reynolds was ecstatic to expound on his favorites for folks at home.
“I loved the motif of the fire and the finger snap and the elevator coming to a stop and the flame in the back with the lit match—it was a nice touch,” he says, referring to a repeated device of lighting cigarettes that starts with Buck, Will’s first ghost, and signals the elevator’s descent. “The elevator in general was really well done…it was CRAZY when they showed the walls coming in, right? First he’s talking, then he hits the button, and it lights up and the walls come in—it was such a smart touch.”
It’s impossible not to be giddy over how well-executed this production is. This is the ideal way to have your work adapted: by skilled, careful people at an institution you trust.
“The Kennedy Center is the Kennedy Center,” Reynolds says. “This is one of the biggest performing arts institutions on the planet. I am honored that they have been asking me and trying to work out how to adapt one of my novels for so long. I have no idea why they’ve taken to me, but I’m grateful for it. And I hope we can do it again; I hope we can do it again.”
Long Way Down
is running at the Kennedy Center through Sunday, November 4. If any of the remaining performances are recorded for the public, Paste readers will be among the first to know.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go 10 rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.