by Brittany Crowell
It starts simple – a microphone check – as the backdrop of speakers is illuminated in yellows, pinks, purples and greens. What follows is FREESTYLE LOVE SUPREME, described by beatboxing “Shockwave” (Chris Sullivan), the man who sets the heartbeat for his collaborator’s freestyling, as “a short burst of joy” for audience members who come in with “open eyes, open ears, and an open heart.”
I found this joy in my experience at Freestyle Love Supreme on Broadway, but I also found much more. What most surprised and delighted me was the heart and vulnerability that I found amidst the improvisation, joy, and humor.
In the second half of the performance, the cast plays a game called “TRUE” which is based off of an audience suggestion: something you can’t live without. At my performance the given suggestion was “mac and cheese,” however, the rap that came after was deeply personal from each member of the cast freestyling about a father’s love, family sacrifice and joy, and overcoming health issues. By the end of the rap the community both onstage and off were in tears.
“That’s why the world needs theater,” Sullivan told me during our phone call. In describing the heart of Freestyle Love Supreme and the corresponding Freestyle Love Supreme Academy, Sullivan spoke heavily about a reliance on honesty and truth: “There is truth in comedy – one person’s truth can become another person’s truth. It is so much easier to tell your own story than it is to come up with something different. What we’re trying to do with the Academy is to make the world a better place, to foster equitable play, and create a platform for people to tell their own stories and find their own truth.” This, Chris stated, is where the healing comes from.
Freestyle Love Supreme in this way and in many other ways is a breath of fresh air on Broadway. In describing what made Freestyle Love Supreme different than your regular Broadway show, Sullivan described many Broadway ventures as upholding “tradition and money-making” for currently operating power structures. Freestyle Love Supreme is actively working against that; it is a show that is based on hip hop and improvisation. At its core, Sullivan describes hip hop as “creating something from nothing while working to confront the status quo and counter and subvert some of the powers that be for good.” In addition to this, what drew him to the show when he first experienced it at the People’s Improv Theater in 2003 was “the way they were using hip hop and comedy in such a way that was very uplifting. It wasn’t competitive, misogynistic, or sexist in the way that lots of both improv and hip hop can be. The way they were practicing this hilarious form of art that I was already pursuing was magnetic – it made me come back to the show – and the rest is history!”
For those who may be hesitant to buy your ticket to the show – I will attest, it is as Chris describes: “a burst of joy.” But it is also so much more. My experience at Freestyle Love Supreme took me beyond that of a theatrical proscenium narrative catharsis. I left the theater feeling like I had witnessed a brave act of vulnerability while also enjoying some mad-fast rhyming skills. I left feeling that I had myself experienced many moments of truth with the collective community that had been made possible by of the joy, love, and heart that the artists exhibited on the stage.
Chris Sullivan said it well when I asked him to describe in his own words the ethos of Freestyle Love Supreme. He said: “The ethos of Freestyle Love Supreme and Freestyle Love Supreme Academy is fostering a team of people who have each other’s back, who through work of their own help to raise the voices of others and to make sure that everyone onstage, in the class, or in the community, are given an equal chance to share their voice and be heard.”
Freestyle Love Supreme runs through January 2, 2022 at the Booth Theater on Broadway.
The show is 90 minutes long (no intermission).
PHOTO CREDIT: (L to R) Chris Sullivan, Wayne Brady, Anthony Veneziale, Aneesa Folds, and Kurt Crowley (on keyboard) in Freestyle Love Supreme at the Booth Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus.