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Duke Ellington school delays naming of theater after Dave Chappelle until April

Officials said the school plans to discuss Chappelle’s special and how it relates to artistic freedom

Comedian Dave Chappelle addresses the student body and faculty at Duke Ellington School of the Arts on Sept. 29, 2017, in Washington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts, in Northwest D.C., will postpone renaming its theater after comedian Dave Chappelle, one of the school’s most famous graduates, amid concerns from students about his recent Netflix special, the school said in a statement Friday.

A dedication was originally planned for Nov. 23. But the school said in a statement that “moving forward with the event … without first addressing questions and concerns from members of the Ellington Community would be a missed opportunity for a teachable moment.”

While LGBTQ organizations, Netflix employees and some Duke Ellington students have criticized Chappelle’s latest special, “The Closer,” for his comments about transgender people and the LGBTQ community, the renaming of the theater will go forward April 22, the school said.

“Dave is an artist and activist and applauds the school taking time to develop creative and critical thinkers,” Carla Sims, a representative for Chappelle, wrote in an email. “He supports the school and any effort to contribute to open conversations vs. cancellations.”

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In an interview, Duke Ellington Principal Sandi Logan said she has had both formal and informal meetings with students to discuss Chappelle’s comments, including a month of weekly meetings with an “advisory committee” of student leaders that includes representatives from the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance.

The school plans to continue those discussions in the coming months. It said Friday that it has expanded its social studies curriculum “to include content related to political activism, civic engagement, arts activism, and the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.”

“On our end, we just needed a little time to get our community to at least have the conversation — not to maybe change minds. That is never our objective,” Logan said. “We needed that time to be able to get conversation and meaningful progress within the community, not a Band-Aid.”

Some students at Duke Ellington, which has a large population of LGBTQ students, previously told The Washington Post that the decision to rename the theater — what some referred to as the heart of the school — for Chappelle made them feel uncomfortable.

Friday’s announcement “is a loss because we didn’t want the theater to be renamed after him, but it looks like the school is going to go forward with it anyway,” sophomore Andrew Wilson, 16, said. “It makes me feel disappointed.”

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Logan said the delay could allow Ellington “a chance to produce an even more impactful and exciting event” in April.

Duke Ellington is one of the few art schools in the D.C. region with a student body composed primarily of people of color. Logan said she sees that diversity as key to the conversations that will follow.

Duke Ellington announced its plans to rename the school’s theater after Chappelle last month, hours before “The Closer” dropped on Netflix. The school said Chappelle’s “current and future work and influence would raise the profile of the school, increase opportunities for the entire Ellington community, and provide critical fundraising support for the sustainability of our arts-based curriculum.”

During a fundraiser held Oct. 5, Chappelle said having the theater named after him was “the most significant honor of my life.”

Ryan Bacic contributed to this report.