Dave Chappelle turns down naming honor after 'The Closer' student backlash 'sincerely hurt me'

Jenna Ryu
USA TODAY

Dave Chappelle surprised the audience Monday night when he announced that his alma mater, Duke Ellington School of Arts, will not be naming its theater after him. Instead, it will be called the "Theater of Artistic Freedom & Expression."

Chappelle, who graduated from the prestigious high school in 1991, made the announcement during the lavish ceremony on Monday in Washington, D.C., attributing the recent decision to the backlash he received from students regarding his controversial Netflix special, "The Closer."

Referencing the time he visited the Ellington School in November, when the renaming ceremony was initially supposed to take place, Chappelle said the criticism from students "sincerely hurt me."

"I took a lot of cold shots in business… but that day, they hurt me," Chappelle, wearing a dark gray suit and white sneakers, said to the packed crowd on Monday evening. 

Chappelle's special, "The Closer" sparked outage and debates surrounding his remarks about the LGBTQ+ community, in particular his focus on the transgender community. In the special, Chappelle also attempted to juxtapose the pace of civil rights gained by LGBTQ+ people over those fought for by the Black community and expressed solidarity with "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, who drew backlash in 2019 for conflating sex with gender.

Dave Chappelle performs during a theater dedication ceremony honoring the comedian and actor, and to raise funds to support Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, Monday, June. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe) ORG XMIT: DCGA101

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Referencing the backlash from Ellington students, Chappelle recalled how "a line formed" when asked what he had done wrong. And while the kids "said everything about gender… they didn't say anything about art." 

However, he defended the special, calling it "a masterpiece," and said his special was unfairly portrayed in the press. 

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"No matter what they say about 'The Closer,' it is still (one of the) most watched specials on Netflix," he said. "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 he opted not to reject, but rather "defer" the renaming of his school's theater in order to emphasize "the nuance of art" as well as "my right, my freedom of artistic expression" by instead renaming it the Theater of Artistic Freedom & Expression— which was promptly received with applause and a standing ovation. He said he made the decision on Friday. 

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