In 2003, improv comedian Anthony Veneziale asked his two buddies, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, if they would ever consider turning the freestyle rap sessions they practiced into for fun in the basement from a bookstore into a show for the public.
Why not?, agreed the friends. At the time, Miranda’s musical “In the Heights” – which Veneziale and Kail were helping to develop – was still two years away from its first try, and the Ron Chernow biography that would inspire Miranda’s next musical, ” Hamilton”, had not yet been published.
Working from the concept of Veneziale, the three men – who met through their alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut – created the show that would become “Freestyle Love Supreme”. Working entirely from audience suggestions, onstage performers and musicians create raps, hip-hop songs and improv comedy in a freewheeling 80-minute show. There are never two identical representations.
The show’s name was inspired by free jazz pioneer John Coltrane’s 1964 album “A Love Supreme”. One of the original cast members was Christopher Jackson, who later played Benny in the production of Broadway in “In the Heights” and George Washington in “Hamilton.” He described the troupe “Freestyle Love Supreme” as a “jazz band”, whose members each have their own talents and sensibilities and listen carefully to their solos to respond and react in the moment.
Although Miranda joked that the group was so bad in its first performances that people threw fruit on stage, “Freestyle Love Supreme” premiered on Broadway at Arts Nova in 2004, toured of the international theater and comedy circuit, became the subject of a Grammy-nominated Hulu documentary, had a run on Broadway in 2019 and won a 2020 Tony Award. He is now on a national tour, which kicks off Tuesday with a three-week stop at the Old Globe Theatre.
Veneziale, whose stage name is “Two Touch”, is touring with the show as one of three rotating MCs. He will also lead a 90-minute Freestyle Love Supreme Academy workshop on the Globe outdoor festival stage on June 27, teaching the basics of improvisation, 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 spoke about the show in a June 10 phone interview while walking the streets of Philadelphia with his family.
Q: How does it feel to bring this show you created almost 20 years ago to the town where you grew up?
A: It’s the perfect combination of staying humble and being one of those pinch moments.
Q: Did you ever imagine that the show you, Lin-Manuel and Thomas hatched in the basement of Manhattan’s Drama Book Shop would have the success it has?
A: It’s crazy. The initial hope for me was to change the landscape of improvisation. When I was taking classes in the late 90s, everyone else in the classes was white. So for me, the role of theater was to raise and hear questions about our relationship to race, what we hope to learn, and how we can uplift each other. That’s why we created it.
Q: Is it the same reason why you created the Freestyle Love Supreme Academy?
A: Yes. For us, the mission is how to foster and build diverse communities that feel creative and compete using fair play. Hip-hop is a black art form. How do you ensure that you honor and respect this intention and associate it with the art form of improvisational play? Improv was started in Chicago to help immigrant communities feel represented and share their values and be heard within these new communities. If we can tap into that original root and the concept of hip-hop – that is, the representation of blacks and browns – we have something powerful.
Q: I’m always shocked at how quickly “Freestyle” artists can come up with rhymes and comedy bits in seconds. How is it possible?
A: It’s a low-risk exposure therapy where you often fail with the environment that says, “I’m as excited that you’re failing as I’m succeeding.” You will make mistakes. Not every line is going to rhyme, but it’s about the experience of trying to meet her where she is. You create and rewire your neural network to rely more on your flow state and less on your judgment state. It’s something you have to build. You won’t be good at freestyling until the first 100 hours of practice.
Q: What can you tell me about your touring troupe coming to the Old Globe?
A: The team that tours with me, we’re definitely a family and it’s been great. We have Andrew Bancroft (“Jelly Donut”), who is one of our main MCs. We have Kaila Mullady (Kaiser Rözé”), two-time beatbox world champion, who is amazing. We have Dizzy Sense (“Dizzy”), a new member of the group who is a freestyle rapper from the Bronx. We have Jay Ellis (” Jellis J”), who was on our first Broadway tour. And we have Aneesa Folds (“Young Nees”), who will be with us for a week. musical “Trading Places”. We also have Morgan Reilly (“Hummingbird”). She is a singer-songwriter who melts faces and hearts. Our main performer is Victoria Theodore (“Gigawatts”), who played with Prince and Justin Timberlake, and we have musician James Rushin (“Shifty Hills”).
‘Freestyle Love Supreme’
When: Opens on Tuesday, June 21 and will continue until July 10. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays. 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays
Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
Tickets: $52 and more
Call: (619) 234-5623
On line: theoldglobe.org