BWW Interview: Aneesa Folds Masters the Full-Contact Wordplay of FREESTYLE LOVE SUPREME
Freestyle Love Supreme is pulse-quickening, hyper stimulating; it's improv rap musical comedy that's highly entertaining.
If that sentence seemed like a rogue wave of verbiage racing to shore, try counting the syllables flying out of the mouths of a rotating cast of eight or so -- with occasional guest stars (maybe even Lin-Manuel himself one fine day).
Among the regulars is a recent graduate of Freestyle Academy, (yes, there's now a rap school), Aneesa Folds. A youthful veteran of musical comedy theater, Folds raps, rhymes and catches and hurls wordy curve balls. The audience eats it up.
Assorted iterations of Freestyle Love Supreme (FLS) have percolated for 16 years. This is the original hip-hop musical from Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anthony Veneziale and others, long before IN THE HEIGHTS captivated and HAMILTON transfixed audiences.
"It's crazy that I'm here in this show," Folds said. "I used to see FLS shows back in the day when I was in high school."
During the show, audience members are asked for words and personal anecdotes. Wacky stories will be woven. The audience will roar.
One lucky volunteer will join the crew onstage and reveal personal details of the day. During a recent performance those included Frosted Flakes for breakfast and a soccer game against - which team? doesn't matter; his side lost.
The cast incorporates the words and improv stories with typically hilarious results. Such as: a vibrator being returned to Target. It's not what you think, and the tale concluded with a G-rated ending.
"This has been incredible, just a dream," Folds said. "Now I'm on stage with some of my icons. I used to look up to these people and now we're friends."
Improv rapping takes skill, passion and teamwork.
"We have each others' backs," she said. "You have to be able to listen, make eye contact. We have this bond."
Each show is one-of-a-kind, never to be repeated. "We mix it up, and we're not afraid to make mistakes," said Folds, whose rap name is Young Nees. One particular challenge involved a libation. "The word champagne came up and that was hard to rhyme.
"I went on a celebration tangent and it worked because I was being myself, not becoming another character," Folds explained.
"We're telling personal stories about ourselves and sometimes it gets very emotional," she continued.
Each performance is a high wire act for the veteran rappers and the youthful crew. Laughter is contagious on stage and in the audience.
"I'm having so much fun with these guys. It's amazing when you realize your idols are human, and we're all so excited to work with Lin."
Successful improv requires quick-witted responses and the ability to wing it, but also stamina and high energy. And sturdy knees. "I deal with it all by getting good sleep," Folds said with a laugh.
An inspirational app has helped her focus. "It gives you a word and I practice with that to think quickly," she said.
And sometimes they get words that they don't know. "Then we make stuff up.
"And we're always honest with the audience," Folds said, "and everyone's in on the joke."
Folds was inspired to go into show biz by her father, a lounge singer. "He used to leave the mic out and I would pick it up," she recalled. "One of my earliest memories was being in fifth grade and singing a solo part in 'We Are the World' in our music class.
"I was so shy as a kid, crippling shy," she said. "I didn't speak. But when I sang my solo, the teacher did a double take and made me sing at assemblies against my will."
Folds' striking costumes, designed by Lisa Zinni, are rap-cool. One jumpsuit is green and has a glittery accent top. The shoes she never would have picked herself, she admitted, but they complement the pizzazz. "They're greenish-reddish with animal prints," she said. "The other jumpsuit is a deep red and navy-blue animal print with sparkly black wedges."
One of her crucial lessons learned in Freestyle Academy was not to be afraid of making a mistake. "Sometimes I've drawn a blank, but you keep going and it works out."
Chris Sullivan (Shockwave on stage) is a founding member of Freestyle Academy, and he showered praise on Folds, his former protégé and current cast mate.
"The energy that comes off the stage has been building and manifesting itself for the past 16 years," Sullivan said. The core elements of the eight-week academy course include learning skill sets and appreciating the ethos of storytelling.
"Aneesa was a gifted student and had a diverse range and happened to shine is a different way than the others," Sullivan said. "She's grown a lot in the show, she has a very laissez-faire attitude, not afraid to try different things. I'm not taking any credit for her abilities: she's multi-talented.
"We needed a singer and informally asked Aneesa," he said. "She killed it. She was really great."
The cast keeps current with topical news, something that has now become one of Folds' newly ingrained habits.
"I am beyond grateful to have this opportunity to be in this Broadway show," she said. "Sometimes I wake up rhyming."
Freestyle Love Supreme is playing at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. Other cast members include Utkarsh Ambudkar, Andrew Bancroft, Arthur Lewis, Anthony Veneziale, James Monroe Iglehart, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Kaila Mullady, Arthur Lewis, Bill Sherman and Chris Sullivan.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus