In a surprise move, comedian Dave Chappelle announced that the student theater at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington will not bear his name.
Chappelle, one of the school’s most famous alums, was in town Monday night for a dedication ceremony for the venue.
It will instead be called the Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression.
The dedication had initially been postponed last November after critics blasted the comedian’s high-profile Netflix special, “The Closer,” as transphobic. Ellington students also raised concerns.
Chappelle 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. “But the Ellington family is my family,” he said.
At the time of the controversy last year, Duke Ellington 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 and Sexuality Alliance.
“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 art schools that educates a mostly Black student body.
Chappelle, who pledged to donate $100,000 to the school’s theater, said last 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.”