Improv comedy and hip-hop show ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ ready to shake up the Old Globe
Tony-winning Broadway show was co-created by the ‘Hamilton’ duo of writer Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail
In 2003, improv comedian Anthony Veneziale asked his two buddies, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, if they’d ever consider turning the freestyle rap sessions they practiced for fun in a bookstore basement into a show for live audiences.
Why not?, the friends agreed. At the time, Miranda’s musical “In the Heights” — which Veneziale and Kail were helping develop — was still two years away from its first tryout, and the Ron Chernow biography that would inspire Miranda’s next musical, “Hamilton,” hadn’t been published yet.
Working from Veneziale’s concept, the three men — who met through their alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. — created the show that would become “Freestyle Love Supreme.” Working entirely from audience suggestions, the onstage performers and musicians create in-the-moment raps, hip-hop songs and improvisational comedy in a freewheeling 80-minute show. No two performances are ever alike.
The show’s name was inspired by free jazz pioneer John Coltrane’s 1964 album “A Love Supreme.” One of the troupe’s earliest members was Christopher Jackson, who went on to play Benny in the Broadway production of “In the Heights” and George Washington in “Hamilton.” He has described the “Freestyle Love Supreme” troupe as a “jazz group,” whose members each have their own talents and sensibilities and listen acutely for their solos to respond and react in the moment.
Although Miranda has joked the group was so bad at its early performances that people threw fruit at the stage, “Freestyle Love Supreme” went on to premiere off Broadway at Arts Nova in 2004, toured the international theater and comedy circuit, became the subject of a Grammy-nominated Hulu documentary, had a 2019 Broadway run and won a 2020 Tony Award. Now it’s is on a national tour, which kicks off a three-week stop at the Old Globe Theatre on Tuesday.
Veneziale, whose stage name is “Two Touch,” is touring with the show as one of three alternating MCs. He will also host a 90-minute Freestyle Love Supreme Academy workshop on the Globe’s outdoor festival stage June 27, teaching the basics of improv, storytelling and beatboxing to ages 16 and up. Tickets are $25 at theoldglobe.org/globelearning.
The tour arrives in San Diego from Veneziale’s hometown of Philadelphia. He talked about the show in a June 10 phone interview while walking the streets of Philly with his family.
Q: What’s it like to bring this show you created nearly 20 years ago to the town where you grew up?
A: It’s the perfect combination of keeping yourself humble and also being one of those pinch-yourself moments.
Q: Did you ever conceive that the show you, Lin-Manuel and Thomas hatched in the basement theater of Manhattan’s Drama Book Shop would have the success that it has?
A: It’s crazy. The original hope for me was all about altering the landscape of improv. When I was taking classes back in the late ‘90s, all the other people in the classes were White. So for me, the role of theater was to bring up and hear questions about our relationship with race, what we’re hoping to learn and how we can uplift each other. That’s why we created it.
Q: Is that the same reason you created the Freestyle Love Supreme Academy?
A: Yes. For us the mission there is how do we foster and build diverse communities who feel creative and compete using equitable play. Hip-hop is a Black art form. How do we make sure we pay honor and respect that intent and bring it together with the play art form of improv? Improv was started in Chicago to help immigrant communities feel represented and to help them share their values and be heard inside these new communities. If we can tap into that original root and the concept of hip-hop — meaning the representation of Black and Brown people — we’ve got something powerful.
Q: I’m always shocked at how fast “Freestyle” artists can come up with rhymes and comic bits in a matter of seconds. How is that possible?
A: It’s low-risk exposure therapy in which you’re failing often with the environment that says ‘I’m as excited for you to fail as for you to succeed.’ You will make mistakes. Not every single line is going to rhyme, but it’s about the experience of trying to meet it where it is. You’re creating and rewiring your neural network to rely more on your flow state and less on your judging state. That’s something you need to build. You won’t be great at freestyle until after the first 100 hours you do it.
Q: What can you tell me about your touring troupe who are coming to the Old Globe?
A: The crew that is touring with me, we’re definitely a family and it’s been a blast. We have Andrew Bancroft (“Jelly Donut”), who is one of our lead MCs. We have Kaila Mullady (Kaiser Rözé"), a two-time world beatboxing champion, who’s incredible. We’ve got Dizzy Sense (“Dizzy”), a new member of the group who’s a freestyle rapper out of the Bronx. We’ve got Jay Ellis (“Jellis J”), who was in our Broadway debut run. And we’ve got Aneesa Folds (“Young Nees”), who will be with us for one week. She’s finishing her out-of-town tryouts for the musical “Trading Places.” We also have Morgan Reilly (“Hummingbird”). She’s a singer-songwriter who melts faces and hearts. Our keys player is Victoria Theodore (“Gigawatts”), who has played with Prince and Justin Timberlake, and we’ve got musician James Rushin (“Shifty Hills”).
‘Freestyle Love Supreme’
When: Opens Tuesday, June 21 and runs through July 10. Showtimes, 7 pm. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
Tickets: $52 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
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