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With Humor and Tenderness

Cast connects in "Freestyle Love Supreme"

Artists riff, rhyme, improvise and connect with an audience in “Freestyle Love Supreme,” now showing through May 1 at Portland Center Stage. Pictured are Kaila Mullady (from left), Morgan Reilly, Andrew Bancroft, and Jay C. Ellis. PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS/PORTLAND CENTER STAGE


The national tour of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” now having a run at Portland Center Stage, isn’t a play in the traditional sense. It’s more of a method, a process, a practice of playfulness and collaboration and community. For 90 minutes, several talented artists riff, rhyme, improvise, and play with the audience and with each other. A rotating cast of performers invite audience members to toss out ideas, stories, and pet peeves; each audience offering gets at least a friendly toss, and some get embroidered into an intuitive comedic mash-up. No two performances are the same.


The project was born during rehearsal breaks for the original production of “In the Heights.” Anthony Veneziale, who was the host of the performance I saw, is credited as having conceived the show, and co-created it with Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail (who also directed Miranda’s hit musicals “In the Heights” and “Hamilton”).


Veneziale and Kail were fast friends in college, and lightning struck when they met Miranda. In the midst of other projects—and, indeed, powering those projects—the friends, along with others they gathered, built a show around engagement. Starting with a loose but intentional structure, they built each show on their collective love for each other, for rapping and beat-boxing and singing and entertaining, and for the joy of performing and connecting with an audience.


The show lived on through 15 years of performing in venues of all sizes even after the energies of Miranda and Kail got pulled into other major projects. Then, in 2019, they gathered the original crew for a Broadway run in 2019 and 2020. The history of the show is well-captured in the 2020 documentary, “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” (available on Hulu), which includes footage from throughout the show’s various iterations and makes a great accompaniment to the show itself.


Veneziale played his foundational role as host in the Portland show I saw, and he is a wonder. He holds the audience with such a wonderful combination of humor and tenderness. In keeping with the show’s roots, the cast works—and I do mean they work—in a community of listening and play and considerable skill. It’s all in fun—but it pays to notice that there is great facility and intention at work here. No major problems will have been solved over the course of 90 minutes, but the performers have in some ways practiced, and enlisted us in practicing, a resourceful sort of hope, finding the thread of humor and fun woven into ordinary events, ordinary irritation, ordinary dreams and wishes and memories. There’s freedom here, and love. And it’s not saying too much to call it supreme.


“Freestyle Love Supreme” plays at Portland Center Stage through May 1.


Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.

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