Dave Chappelle’s surprise appearance at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts this week has drawn criticism from parents and students after the school had the comedian back amid social media threats and rising tension between students.
The school announced this month that it was postponing a ceremony to rename its theater after Chappelle until the spring amid student concerns about comments the comedian — one of the Northwest D.C. school’s most famous graduates — made in a recent Netflix special. Chappelle has faced criticism for his comments about transgender people and the LGBTQ community.
The comedian visited the school on Tuesday, the day the theater dedication was originally set to take place, to have a conversation with students about what they thought he did wrong in “The Closer” special, Carla Sims, his publicist, said. The assembly wasn’t mandatory and around 580 students attended.
Principal Sandi Logan “decided it was in the interest of the students to give them this opportunity to both speak to and hear from Dave Chappelle,” said Mark Irion, a pro-bono consultant representing Duke Ellington.
Chappelle, who was in town for a screening of his documentary, “Untitled,” also wanted to talk to students after hearing some had been harassed online because of the renaming delay, according to school spokesperson Savannah Overton. The school had increased security on campus and paused some activities after learning of threats, school officials told parents in an Nov. 16 email.
The conversation between Chappelle and the Duke Ellington students was first reported by Politico.
During the assembly, the comedian challenged students to talk and ask him questions, but they were often interrupted, students said.
“It was strange to me because he was asking for our opinions, and then when we gave our opinions, he just shut us down,” 15-year-old sophomore Seneca Garren said. “There was a very big power imbalance of him just talking down to us, and just being really rude to us. It just it did not feel like a very welcome environment.”
“One of the kids was explaining to him that [in ‘The Closer’] he misgendered someone multiple times, and as she was going to explain the effects of that, he interrupted her and said, ‘What even is misgendering?’ making sort of a joke about it,” 16-year-old sophomore Andrew Wilson said.
Wilson was among those who spoke and said he told Chappelle that his jokes were “laced with bigotry and ignorance.”
Garren said it was a “stressful” and “triggering” environment, and said one student had to leave the theater because she was having a panic attack.
Students are on edge about the debate over renaming the theater, she said. “As much as there’s a large population of students who really don’t support him, there’s also some students that do support him.”
Some parents said they were not told in advance that Chappelle and a filmmaking crew were planning to be at the school. And what was more surprising for some of them was that students were required to put their phones in pouches before the assembly started, two parents said.
When asked about why parents weren’t notified, Overton said all families, as part of D.C. Public Schools policy, have to sign a media consent waiver and students who don’t want their image used can be removed. Chappelle’s publicist said the filmed material was for their own archival purposes.
Parent Allyson Finch Wilson, Andrew’s mother, also voiced concern about there not being a mediator between Chappelle and students at the events. “They gave him a stage. They let his camera crews in. They took our kids’ phones away, and it was going to go down the way Dave Chappelle wanted it to go down,” Finch Wilson said.
Sims and Overton said that during the conversation, students had time to articulate their ideas. “They felt comfortable enough in a space to take the mic and ask a question or make a comment,” Overton said.
Logan was at the stage taking the questions, and before Chappelle arrived, she went through a presentation about “having courageous conversations and not cancellation,” she said.
Michael Giordano, who has a daughter at Duke Ellington, said parents have not been involved or asked for their opinion about whether it is a right thing for the school to rename its theater.
Giordano said he is also concerned for the emotional and physical safety of his daughter and the other students, as tensions between those who support the comedian and those who don’t collide, he said.
“The lack of transparency and engagement with parents, students and the larger community around the Chappelle event is unconscionable and dangerous,” Giordano said.
According to a Duke Ellington spokesperson, Chappelle provided Thanksgiving meals for students and staff for the Tuesday event, in addition to giving three tickets for students and their guardians and two tickets for staff to Tuesday’s screening of “Untitled” at Capital One Arena.
In an Instagram post Friday, Chappelle said having the theater named after him was an honor, though it was not his idea or desire. He encouraged people to donate to the school and note whether they think the theater should be named after him.
“If by April those against the 'Chappelle’ theater exceed the donations of those who are neutral or in favor … I will gladly step aside. If not, I will happily attend the naming ceremony,” he wrote.