In surprise move, Dave Chappelle rejects his school’s offer to name theater after him

A man stands onstage next to a sign that says Theatre for Artistic Freedom and Expression
Dave Chappelle unveils a sign for Theatre for Artistic Freedom and Expression during a dedication ceremony honoring the comedian and actor, and to raise funds for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
(Gemunu Amarasinghe / Associated Press)

The long-delayed dedication ceremony meant to recognize comedian Dave Chappelle at his high school took another dramatic turn Monday when the comic declined the honor.

The Emmy-winning star said Monday that the student theater at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts will no longer be named after him. Instead, it will be called the Theatre for Artistic Freedom and Expression, according to the Washington Post.

It’s unclear when the decision was made to go with the new name instead. Representatives for the school and Chappelle did not immediately respond Tuesday to The Times’ requests for comment.

The ceremony had been postponed from November amid the brewing controversy over transphobic jokes and other insensitive commentary Chappelle made in his divisive Netflix special “The Closer.” In that wave of criticism, Duke Ellington students also voiced concerns about honoring the famous alumnus at his alma mater — a free, public magnet school in Washington, D.C., with a majority Black student body.


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The 48-year-old comic, who had described the theater renaming as “the most significant honor of my life,” reportedly told the audience at Monday’s ceremony that he thought the backlash against him lacked nuance and wasn’t about his work, the Post reported.

“You cannot report on an artist’s work and remove artistic nuance,” the firebrand comic said, according to a Twitter thread from Post columnist Josh Rogin.

“No matter what they say about ‘The Closer,’ it is still [one of the] most watched specials on Netflix. The more you say I can’t say something, the more urgent it is for me to say it. It has nothing to do with what you are saying I can’t say. It has everything to do with my freedom of artistic expression,” Chappelle said.

But he also didn’t want a theater bearing his name to distract from students focusing on the meaning of their art, the Post reported, and he said the criticism “sincerely” hurt him.

“The idea that my name will be turned into an instrument of someone else’s perceived oppression is untenable to me,” said the “A Star Is Born” and “Chappelle’s Show” actor.

The decision to rename the theater after Chappelle had been made at founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz‘s request. In November, Chappelle said he accepted it even though it wasn’t his “idea, aim or desire” to have the honor bestowed on him.

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Despite the controversy, the school doubled down months ago on its decision to rename the venue, arguing at the time that art is “a free and open form of expression to both reflect and challenge society.”

“The debates among some Ellington students largely mirror those that exist across Washington, D.C., and the country as a whole. The varying viewpoints expressed by students reflect differences of opinion across a wide variety of socioeconomic factors, including class, race, and gender expression,” the school said in a statement in December.

Ahead of Monday’s event, the school said that its co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz “was a fierce believer in the transformative power of the arts and it was her hope that Chappelle would use his platform to bring more resources and attention to the school.”

Indeed, Monday’s event, “The Excellence of Ellington: An Evening With Dave Chappelle,” also kicked off the school’s Million Dollar Challenge with Chappelle. Organizers hope to raise $2 million to help cover pre-professional arts training not funded by the school district’s budget.

Chappelle previously pledged to donate $100,000 to the school and in 2017 gave it one of his Emmy awards.