There will no longer be a theater named after Dave Chappelle to his alma mater. On Monday night, Chappelle declined to put his name on a student theater at Duke Ellington School of the Arts due to controversy surrounding his jokes about the LGBTQ community in his Netflix special The Closer.
per The Washington Post, the Washington, DC, public school was set to unveil the Dave Chappelle Theater during the dedication ceremony honoring the comedian on Monday. The event had been postponed since November as a result of backlash over jokes in The Closer that were widely found to be transphobic.
Chappelle visited his alma mater in November of 2021 and visited his tense Q&A with the student body, with a number of students criticizing Chappelle and reaction to The Closer‘s reception. Per Politico, Chappelle was greeted by a mix of cheers and boos and was dressed down by some of the students at the school; one student called Chappelle “a bigot,” adding, “I’m 16, and I think you’re childish. You handled it like a child.” At the time, Chappelle reportedly responded to the teenagers’ criticism in a defensive manner, saying, “I’m better than every instrumentalist, artist—no matter what art you do in this school, right now I’m better than all of you . I’m sure that will change. I’m sure you’ll be household names soon.”
During the Closer controversy, the school decided to postpone the unveiling of the Dave Chappelle Theatre, with principal Sandi Logan conducting formal and informal meetings with students—including some in the Gender & Sexuality Alliance—to discuss Chappelle’s comments. “Moving forward with the event…without first addressing questions and concerns from members of the missed Ellington community would be an opportunity for a teachable moment,” wrote the school in a statement.
While attending the dedication event on Monday, Chappelle announced that he would not have the theater named after him, saying that he was “sincerely hurt” by the backlash from students in response to the special. In his remarks from him, Chappelle reportedly called the special a “masterpiece” and referred to himself as “maybe a once-in-a-lifetime talent.” “No matter what they say about The Closer, it is still [one of the] most watched specials on Netflix,” he said.
In regard to the students who criticized him, Chappelle told the crowd that “these kids didn’t understand that they were instruments of artistic oppression,” adding, “The more you say I can’t say something, the more urgent it is for me to say it.”
Chappelle reportedly went on to say that though he found the backlash against him to lack nuance, he didn’t want his name on a theater to distract students from honing their craft. He shared that he decided on Friday to not have the theater named after him, but maintained that “the Ellington family is my family.” Instead of the Dave Chappelle Theatre, the performing arts venue will be called the Theater for Artistic Freedom & Expression.
The Duke Ellington School of the Arts was established in 1974 and is one of the few arts schools in its area serving a mostly Black student body from all across Washington, DC Chappelle—the school’s most famous alumnus—has previously brought celebrities such as Bradley Cooper and Chris Tucker to speak at the school. In October, Chappelle pledged to donate $100,000 to the school’s theater and said having the venue named after him was “the most significant honor of my life.”