Lin-Manuel Miranda marries improv and hip-hop in ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ It’s a show even C. Delores Tucker and Tipper Gore could love

Freestyle Love Supreme is an improv rap show even Tipper Gore and C. Delores Tucker could enjoy.

Its presence on Broadway is yet another indication of hip-hop’s continued evolution from its birth in the black-and-brown South Bronx of the early ’70s to now. And so, just as one can now buy a Dapper Dan creation from Gucci itself, one can also attend a rap-flavored improv show on Broadway for about $60 to $200, depending on where you’re sitting. Which means that, in the ever-expanding tent of hip-hop, there’s even room for a famously squeamish former second lady.

The Broadway show, now running through Jan. 5 at the Booth Theatre in New York, is akin to a marriage of Wild ’N Out, Nick Cannon’s popular MTV show, and Whose Line Is It Anyway? presented as live theater. Before he found success with Hamilton and In the Heights, Miranda co-created Freestyle Love Supreme with his buddies, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and actor Anthony Veneziale.

From left to right: Chris Sullivan, Daveed Diggs and Wayne Brady perform in Freestyle Love Supreme. The show is structured around a few set pieces, and the rappers introduce themselves and show off their individual talents.

Joan Marcus

Some background: In 1985, Gore, future second lady, testified before a Senate panel, advocating for warning labels on music after she bought a Prince album for her daughter, who was 11 at the time, and realized that it was inappropriate for her. Gore then went on a crusade on behalf of the Parents Music Resource Center that resulted in the “parental advisory” sticker that accompanies music with explicit lyrics. Similarly, in the early ’90s, Tucker was a vocal opponent of gangsta rap (especially Tupac Shakur’s) and organized rallies outside of music stores, protesting the violent and misogynistic lyrics that characterized the genre.

Like every improv show, Freestyle Love Supreme is dependent on audience energy and participation and therefore is heavily dependent on the weirdo quotient of its ticket buyers. Before the show starts, attendees are encouraged to write down words and put them in a box for performers to use as prompts in the show, though yelling them out is also encouraged.

The show is structured around a few set pieces: The rappers introduce themselves and show off their individual talents. A regular rotating cast of rappers and beatboxers (Utkarsh Ambudkar, aka UTK the INC.; Andrew Bancroft, aka Jelly Donut; Aneesa Folds, aka Young Nees; Arthur Lewis, aka Arthur the Geniuses; Kaila Mullady, aka Kaiser Rözé; Chris and Sullivan, aka Shockwave) participate, with surprise guests rounding out the lineup. Veneziale, aka Two Touch, serves as MC. Veneziale is an amenable host, and Ambudkar is by far the most skilled rapper of the group, while Folds, the newest member, who rose through the Freestyle Love Supreme academy, offers a powerfully impressive singing voice besides her rapping.

They invite the audience to share stories about moments in their lives they wish they could revise, and, to close out the show, they invite an audience member to sit onstage and be interviewed about his or her day. To be selected, the person must be of voting age, must have interacted with at least three to five people, and must have actually done something that day, as the life of an agoraphobe does not lend itself to interesting freestyles — whouda thunk?!

The nights I attended, the guests were Miranda, Daveed Diggs (best known for originating the role of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in Hamilton) and Whose Line alum Wayne Brady. Both nights I attended Freestyle Love Supreme, there were middle-school-age children in the audience, and for the most part, the rappers steer clear of subjects and words that would likely rile Tucker or Gore. Miranda took the liberty of dropping a generous supply of F-bombs, but he seemed to be the exception in that regard. It didn’t matter — when he hopped out of the wings, Miranda was greeted with the sort of roars, whoops and applause one might expect for a star quarterback making his entrance at the Super Bowl, not a musical theater nerd. But then, in this arena, Miranda is the Puerto Rican Johnny Unitas.

The first night I attended included a rap, drawn from an audience member’s recounting of biting her sister on the back during a visit to their grandparents’ home in Connecticut. The audience member was 3 years old at the time; her sister was 1. At the second performance, an elderly woman in the audience shared a story about having her picture taken, without her consent, as she was walking through a park. Later, she discovered that her head ended up in an issue of Playboy grafted onto someone else’s body.

And so Freestyle Love Supreme is about as anodyne a rap show as one can attend that isn’t a stop on the world tour of KIDZ BOP. It doesn’t exhibit much relationship to the John Coltrane album that inspired its name, but it does thrives on linguistic cleverness. A standout prompt was one that required the performers to tell a true story using the word “meniscus,” but Freestyle Love Supreme is largely divorced from the social critique of conscious rap, which is bound to elicit accusations of “selling out.”

Miranda’s no stranger to that criticism. Last year, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe hosted a staged reading of a new Ishmael Reed play titled The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Reed, a 1998 MacArthur “genius” grantee, took umbrage at what he considered Manuel’s ahistorical portrait of Alexander Hamilton, particularly his relationship to slavery. Reed also characterized the rapping in Hamilton as “corny” and derided the commercialism of the show (he was especially peeved that Manuel would do a commercial for American Express).

I did find myself wondering what the show would be like if the guest rapper were, say, Megan Thee Stallion or Black Thought or Erykah Badu and wishing that there was room for them to drop by and bless the audience with some rhymes. The group generally performs two nightly sets; perhaps the late-night one offers opportunities for a little more danger.

Miranda has succeeded in extending the democratization of hip-hop to those looking for a low-stakes foray into the genre and capitalizing upon it (he and Kail are also producers). Podcasters Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton once mused on an episode of Another Round that “improv is white people’s spoken word.” Sprinkle a hint of Lawry’s, and maybe some Goya Adobo, and you’ve got Freestyle Love Supreme.

Oprah is talking about box braids and listening to Kendrick. Has she changed or have we? At her latest ‘SuperSoul Conversations,’ a more outspoken version of the world’s most powerful black woman

NEW YORK — A few weeks ago, after she’d delivered her news-cycle-dominating barn burner of a Golden Globes speech, Oprah Winfrey held court at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

She’d booked the place for a marathon day of interviews with pop culture luminaries, which were being taped for the televised OWN series SuperSoul Conversations and the podcast of the same name. Part one, which features Jordan Peele, Salma Hayek Pinault and Trevor Noah, will air on Tuesday at 10 p.m. The interviews with Stephen Colbert, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Yara Shahidi will air in part two on March 6 at 10 p.m.

One moment was especially shocking: Oprah was speaking with Peele, the Oscar-nominated director of Get Out. “I won’t shame anybody, those who haven’t yet seen it. Most of them are up there — ” Oprah said, pointing toward the upper mezzanine, “— and there’s a reason for that.” The black women in the audience, especially those in the orchestra section, erupted with whoops and laughs.

“Those of you who are white, you should go and see it with a black friend,” Oprah continued. “Gayle [King] said she’d seen it at a screening or something and then she went as saw it with a black audience and it was completely different.”

Another round of laughs.

Kill the b—-!” Oprah jeered, referring to the character who lures unsuspecting black men to her family’s compound where she and her family auction them off to whites seeking younger, stronger bodies to inhabit.

This was followed by about 30 seconds of raucous applause, and more whooping.

Where in Sam Hill did this Oprah come from?


Oprah’s always been black and she’s always been forthright about her own experiences with racism. But many black people have had a complicated relationship with Oprah, with her wealth, with perceptions of her obligations to The Black Community. See: those who called on Oprah to rescue the television series Underground even after she explained it didn’t make good financial sense for the OWN network or those who resented her for building a school for poor girls in South Africa instead of stateside or those who resented The Color Purple and her role in it because they thought it unfairly maligned black men. For years, like much of middle America, she had a distant-to-lukewarm relationship with hip-hop.

As some black people saw it, Oprah had an unspoken covenant with the white people who delivered the bulk of her bonkers ratings and subsequent wealth: Sure, she’s allowed to periodically remind white people that she’s black, but she’s sure not going to turn into Assata Shakur.

Oprah is the preeminent white lady whisperer of the 20th century, an observation Saturday Night Live recently resurrected amid speculation of an Oprah 2020 run for president.

Leslie Jones-as-Oprah stopped by the Weekend Update desk to explain why she might turn to public service.

“I need to get white women back on track,” said Jones-as-Oprah. “Ever since I’ve been off the air, they’ve gotten out of control. They voted for Trump. They voted for Roy Moore. They kept 12 different shows about flipping houses on air. It’s a mess!”

In the past few years, though, something has shifted ever so slightly. It was evident from the reactions of black women in the Apollo audience, who murmured with gleeful astonishment to Oprah’s “kill the b—-” comment. I saw a few more eyebrows go up when Oprah suggested to Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, the Two Dope Queens who opened the event for her, that the trio “go to a salon and get box braids.” There was a similar reaction when the bass line to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” thumped in during a video accompanying Peele’s introduction: OK, Oprah! We see you, girl.

Has black people’s relationship with Oprah changed or has she? Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Oprah’s role in the public imagination, and the attention and commerce it commands, has always been raced and gendered. I remember my college poetry professor dismissing her as a “mammy diva,” referring to Oprah’s penchant for making white people comfortable while also putting herself on the cover of her eponymous magazine every month.

I think she’s following the compass of her power as a public figure. For Oprah, magnetic north has been shifting back toward black women ever since she decided to endorse Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race. It’s a shift that’s been unfolding for years, as OWN, which launched in January 2011, found its ratings footing thanks to black women, rather than the Oprah show’s bread and butter demo of white mothers and housewives. Oprah has returned the love by investing in programming that caters directly to them, from Black Love to Queen Sugar to Greenleaf to the forthcoming Love Is ___, an hourlong drama from Salim and Mara Brock Akil, the couple behind Girlfriends, Being Mary Jane, and most recently, Black Lightning. (Tyler Perry, the much-maligned actor-director-producer who was responsible for the network’s early ratings success, is moving on to Viacom.)

Oprah is the most powerful black woman in the world, and through her programming choices, she’s redoubled her efforts to reach other black women, reaffirming that, yes, deep down, beneath all that money, she really is just like them. That’s precisely why, upon meeting her last June at a press junket for Queen Sugar, I asked Oprah if she’d ever consider hosting a presidential debate on OWN. It seemed like another way for the mogul to use her network to serve black women, especially considering how the Democratic Party has been criticized for overlooking the one demographic that’s continually bailing it out. If there’s anyone who could refocus the party’s attention on its most loyal constituency, it’s Oprah, right?

Oprah immediately shook her head. “No.”

She started to walk away, then turned back to me. Her eyes narrowed a bit, she pursed her lips, and you could see her considering the idea for another beat. “Wait. You mean in 2020?”

“Yes.”

“Anything’s possible.”

In February, Oprah addressed the crowd before her at the Apollo. The audience was mostly women, mostly black, and filled with people turned out in the stylish, elaborate garb that makes for street-style photography gold. Everyone dresses right for Oprah.

Oprah is the most powerful black woman in the world, and through her programming choices, she’s redoubled her efforts to reach other black women, reaffirming that, yes, deep down, beneath all that money, she really is just like them.

“I know so many people are feeling uneasy about the state of our world right now. It’s gon’ be aight,” Oprah said in the calm tones of a parent reassuring her children. “We. Have been. Through tougher times than these. It’s going to be OK. OK? Especially if you don’t buy into the hysteria. OK?”

When she was taping the Oprah show, Oprah always had a more irreverent side to her than the nation’s needy projections of comfortable matronliness would suggest. Our understanding of Oprah as a woman with youthful energy and a sex drive seems to fluctuate with her weight. She can be bashful and flirty — remember the time Jamie Foxx hit on her? She has admitted, on air, to not wearing underwear and she’s drunk tequila shots, too. After her 50th birthday, director Lee Daniels reminded us of Oprah’s sultry side in The Butler, where Oprah, as a drunken Gloria Gaines, took a long drag on a cigarette as she entertained the advances of Howard (Terrence Howard).

But she was also adept at knowing when to use her auntie affect as a way to get her celebrity guests on the Oprah show to divulge details about their lives that they didn’t necessarily wish to discuss. It’s on full display in a 2007 interview with Beyoncé, when the singer was still being cagey about her relationship with Jay-Z, and wasn’t even overtly confirming whether or not the two were married (they were).

Now, at 64, Oprah seems to be in the midst of a youthful renaissance, and not just because she embraces the awkward Gen Z humor of Twooooo Dooope Queeeeeeeeeee-eeeeeeeens, as she calls them. For the SuperSoul taping, Oprah was dressed in an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place on a woman 30 years younger: skinny black jeans, kicky black moto boots, and an ice-blue velvet blazer over a partially sheer white blouse. Her hair was pulled into a high, bouncy ponytail that gave her a girlish quality. She was sporting a pair of round glasses that featured leopard print detail on the bridge and temples. She looked, well, cool.

More than any other time during her life in the public eye, Oprah seems to be enjoying the freedom to do and say whatever she wants. This was hugely apparent when she told her audience at the Apollo that she had more power being Oprah than she could ever wield as president of the United States.

What does it look like to preserve your faith in humanity while shedding the last remnants of damns you have to give?

Keep your eye on Oprah. She’s showing us.

Daily Dose: 5/19/17 Basquiat is still selling and breaking records

This has been one of the longest weeks in Washington I can think of in a really long time. Here’s hoping that we make it through the weekend with our democracy intact.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more precarious at the White House, the president takes off on a foreign trip. Obviously, people are a bit worried about how this might go, considering President Donald Trump’s proclivities for bluster and hyperbole, which may play well here with his base, but are a different matter overseas. He’s representing not only himself but also the nation. A misspeak or errant tweet is not going to fly with a foreign audience when you’re on their turf. Let’s hope his aides are armed with what they need to make this go smoothly.

I love dogs as much as the next person, but let’s be clear — they are not human. So when it comes to lives being taken unfairly, I’m pretty much always going to consider those of actual people more important than those of pets. But if you want to get an idea of where we are in America, a woman just walked free for killing a black man while in the line of duty in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, a guy who shot and didn’t even kill a police dog gets 19 years in prison. That is seriously messed up.

Jean-Michel Basquiat is a legend in the game. The street artist turned megastar died in 1988, but his influence on how galleries and subculture began to meld together to create a mainstream genre is still felt today. His work still sells, in some cases for amounts so astronomical that it makes you sad he’s not around to enjoy that money. But his latest is really off the charts. One of his works just sold for $110.5 million, making it only the 11th piece ever to break the $100M mark. I can’t even remotely contemplate paying that much for something.

Under Armour just scored a big league deal. The athletic apparel company will be supplying uniforms to Major League Baseball in 2019, taking over for Majestic and Nike. It feels like those two have been there forever; it’s 1982 for the former, to be exact. It’s a massive score for the Baltimore-based Under Armour, which has been growing consistently since it started in 1996. Now it’s one of the big boys for sure. I do wonder if it’ll do anything drastic to the usually staid, traditional style of MLB, but I doubt it. Why mess with greatness?

Free Food

Coffee Break: As if you don’t have enough things to worry about when buying a house, you can now add “gigantic terrifying honeycomb” to that list. That’s what happened in Georgia, where a woman discovered she had more than 100,000 bees inside her house. That is terrifying.

Snack Time: In this business of show, creativity is required but not always easy to find. So don’t ask me how or why we need a movie about the life of Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s monkey.

Dessert: You know what is good news, though? Lin-Manuel Miranda being involved in a DuckTales reboot. YES.