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Dave Chappelle declines having Duke Ellington School theater named for him

The comedian had faced backlash from students for his comments about the LGBTQ community in a recent Netflix special

Comedian Dave Chappelle speaks at the dedication of the student theater at Duke Ellington School of the Arts on June 20. ( Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post )
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Comedian Dave Chappelle unexpectedly announced Monday that a student theater at his alma mater, Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington, will not bear his name.

The public school had planned to host a dedication event Monday night in his honor, advertising on social media that the event would unveil a new arts space on campus called the Dave Chappelle Theatre. A website with the URL ChappelleTheatre.com, which remained online Tuesday afternoon, said “the naming comes in appreciation for his ongoing commitment and service to the school and advocacy for the arts.”

But in a surprise move, Chappelle, who attended the dedication ceremony, declined the honor amid controversy over his Netflix special last year that many blasted as transphobic. Ellington students had also raised concerns.

It will instead be called the Theatre for Artistic Freedom & Expression.

Chappelle, one of the school’s most famous graduates, told the audience Monday that while he thought the backlash against him lacked nuance and wasn’t about his work, he didn’t want a theater bearing his name to distract from students focusing on the meaning of their art.

He also noted that the criticism “sincerely” hurt him.

Chappelle said he decided Friday not to have his name on the school venue. “But the Ellington family is my family,” he said.

At the time of the controversy last year, Principal Sandi Logan said she had had 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 included representatives from the school’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance.

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

“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,” the school wrote in a statement.

Established in 1974 with a mission of providing a free, first-class arts education to children in the nation’s capital, Duke Ellington attracts students from across the city and is one of the few area arts schools that educate a mostly Black student body.

Chappelle, who pledged to donate $100,000 to the school’s theater, said in October that having the theater named after him was “the most significant honor of my life.”

“I used to skip school. I would hide in there when I was skipping class. Who would have thought that that theater would one day be named after me?” Chappelle said in a speech to donors to raise money for Ellington before a screening of “The Closer” at the Angelika Pop-Up theater at Union Market. “But I understand it because sometimes when you love things, they love you back. And I loved that school.”

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