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The spontaneous joy of ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’

Broadway’s hip-hop improv show lands in Boston

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
The spontaneous joy of ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’
(From left) Chris Sullivan, Wayne Brady, Anthony Veneziale, Aneesa Folds, and Kurt Crowley (on keyboard) in Freestyle Love Supreme at the Booth Theatre. PHOTO: Joan Marcus

“Freestyle Love Supreme,” the Broadway improvisational hip-hop sensation, brings beats and rhymes to Boston’s stage this week. Running March 18 through April 2 at Emerson’s Colonial Theatre, the show celebrates Black artistry with joy and spontaneity.

Before “In the Heights,” and “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail and Anthony Veneziale developed “Freestyle Love Supreme” from their own casual freestyle sessions. Taking prompts from the audience like an improv show, the performers burst out in unscripted riffs, comedy bits and full-on musical numbers.

For performer Jay C. Ellis, the show is a celebration of the hip-hop culture that shaped him. “Coming up, I would always freestyle rap and dive into hip-hop and making beats, rapping with my friends around the lunch table and things like that,” he says. “Hip-hop is the soundtrack of my life.”

(L to R) James Monroe Iglehart, Aneesa Folds, Wayne Brady, and Anthony Veneziale in Freestyle Love Supreme at the Booth Theatre.PHOTO: Joan Marcus.

The show’s title comes from John Coltrane’s piece “A Love Supreme,” but that’s only the beginning of the homage to Black artistry. The musical styles “Freestyle Love Supreme” draws on — hip-hop, jazz, gospel and rap — all come from Black cultures, and the diverse cast celebrates that heritage with radical joy onstage.

“Not all of the artists that are involved are Black artists, but they are all participating in a Black art form that was founded out of love, and giving a voice to non-centered voices,” says Ellis. Ultimately, Ellis hopes “Freestyle Love Supreme” brings the proper recognition to hip-hop and rap. “I think that the culture of hip-hop is something that needs to be put on the spectrum of your traditional theatergoer,” he says. “It is high culture.”

Hip-hop musicals have become increasingly popular on stages across America, but “Freestyle Love Supreme” does something unique: It takes what may seem like small events in people’s lives, provided by the audience, and turns them into larger-than-life, celebratory musical moments. Ellis recalls one show where a young Black boy described a school assignment that he was given a second chance to master. The cast took that story and told it through rhythm and rhyme in a way that magnified that child’s success on a Broadway tour stage.

“We have a rare show where we get an actual opportunity to take suggestions from the audience and take those things in their life and deal with them and make them as fun and beautiful and amazing as we would like to spin reality,” says Ellis. “The things we create in this theater can be manifested, if we pour love into the world.”

arts, Freestyle Love Supreme, Hip-Hop, music, theater