Those expecting comedian Dave Chappelle to preside over a ceremony naming a theater building in his honor at his alma mater, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest D.C., Monday night received a big surprise.
The D.C. native instead declined the honor and unveiled a plaque naming the venue “The Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression.”
“I want that for myself, and I want it for every student that is educated at this school,” Chappelle said.
Chappelle said he never asked to have the theater building named after him. If and when the school is ever ready, it can add his name to the theater, the comedian said.
“If [artistic expression] is threatened, the society at large is threatened,” Chappelle told WTOP’s news partner NBC Washington. “If artists feel stifled, then everyone is stifled. I feel like artists have a responsibility to really be true to their art right now.”
The school originally planned to name the theater after Chappelle in November, with the comedian saying in a speech to donors that honor was “the most significant honor of my life,” according to The Washington Post.
However, his Netflix special “The Closer” angered many, including advocacy group such as GLAAD and members of the LGBTQ+ community, who saw Chappelle’s material as transphobic. The school postponed the theater’s renaming fundraiser and established listening session with its students following the backlash.
Some students also were critical of Chappelle, with some firing back at the comedian in person during a meeting before Thanksgiving. According to multiple reports, exchanges between Chappelle and the students became antagonistic and combative.
Following the encounter, Chappelle posted on Instagram that he accepts the will of those who donated against the renaming. Yet, school officials said in December it was standing by its decision, stating that it was honoring “wishes of our co-founder, the late Peggy Cooper Cafritz, to name the theatre after Chappelle.”
Monday’s ceremony kicked off the Ellington’s Million Dollar Challenge, which the school will look to raise $2 million to help cover preprofessional arts training not funded by D.C. Public Schools. Those interested in donating can learn more on the Duke Ellington’s website.
WTOP’s José Umaña contributed to this report.