Comedian Dave Chappelle refused to have his alma mater, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, name its theater after him.
Instead, the building will be named the “Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression,” Chappelle said during a Monday ceremony the high school organized in his honor.
“I want that for myself, and I want it for every student that is educated at this school,” Chappelle said.
“If [artistic expression] is threatened, then the society at large is threatened,” Chappelle told WRC-TV, defending his decision to defer having the theater named after him.
“If artists feel stifled, then everyone is stifled. I feel like artists have a responsibility to really be true to their art right now,” Chappelle said.
The theater was initially slated to be dedicated in Chappelle’s honor in November 2021. In a speech back then, Chappelle said the dedication would be “the most significant honor of my life,” The Washington Post reported.
However, the school postponed the decision following a controversy over Chappelle’s Netflix show “The Closer.”
The show was accused of having transphobic content, including by students at Duke Ellington, according to the Post.
In the show, Chappelle described himself as part of “team TERF,” referring to “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” WTOP reported.
“Gender is a fact. Every human being in this room, every human being on earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on earth. That is a fact,” Chappelle said on the show, the outlet reported.
During the months following the controversy, Duke Ellington Principal Sandi Logan held meetings with students, including those part of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance, to discuss Chappelle’s comments on the show, the Post reported.
During the Monday ceremony, Chappelle told his audience that the criticism surrounding his show “sincerely” hurt him and was lacking in nuance.
Chappelle also said that the reason he turned down the opportunity of having the theater named after him was so that it would not serve as a distraction for students who should be focusing on the meaning of their works, the Post reported.
“[W]hat we heard in the new Duke Ellington School Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression was neither a retreat nor an apology. It was a gesture of defiance, looking ahead to the time when the gesture will be redeemed. Chappelle to critics: The joke’s on you,” The Atlantic writer David Frum wrote of Chappelle’s gesture.
“When Chappelle deferred adding his name to the theater of the school to which he’d given so much of himself — not only checks, but return appearances — he was not yielding or apologizing.”
“He was challenging the in-school critics: You don’t understand what I do — not my right to do it, but the reason it matters that I exercise that right. Until you do understand, you cannot have my name. Someday you will understand. You may have it then,” Frum wrote.
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