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Official Statement from Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Official Statement from Duke Ellington School of the Arts

November 12, 2021

For almost 50 years Duke Ellington School of the Arts has been the leader in arts education in the District of Columbia. Our mission is to nurture and inspire passion for the arts and learning in talented students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to develop their artistic skills. We prepare students to become productive citizens in our global society through our strong focus on activism and community service. By all accounts, we excel at this mission.

On April 22, 2022, we will celebrate one of our most distinguished alumni, Dave Chappelle, by naming our theatre in his honor. This theatre naming was the desire of one of our founders, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who recognized Chappelle as an important thought leader of our time. She understood that the current and future impact of his work and influence would raise the profile of the school, increase opportunities for the entire Ellington community, and provide critical fundraising support for the sustainability of our arts-based curriculum.

As envisioned, Chappelle has elevated the national and international profile of the school by giving witness to the many ways Ellington has improved the lives of its students and fellow alumni. Chappelle has engaged Ellington students to perform at numerous events, including the live and televised airing of Inside the Actors Studio, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, hosted by Jerry Steinfeld, and The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor presented by the Kennedy Center. Chappelle donated his first Emmy Award and other memorabilia to the school, which are now on display as inspiration for all. He has served as commencement speaker and hosted a masterclass featuring accomplished artists including Bradley Cooper, Chris Tucker, Erykah Badu, Common and others. Additionally, he has personally donated or raised millions of dollars to address the school’s chronic under-funding.

Chappelle’s two most recent projects include an untitled documentary that captures the fear and economic devastation of COVID-19, the horror of George Floyd’s murder, and America’s reckoning with deadly racism during the first summer of the pandemic; and Chappelle’s Netflix stand-up special, The Closer, which contains controversial material juxtaposing discrimination against Black Americans with that against non-Black members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The Closer — the most watched comedy special in Netflix’s history, which has garnered a 96% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes — has sparked a national debate around race, gender, sexuality and “cancel culture.” As a learning institution that champions inclusivity, diversity, equity, and belonging, we care deeply about protecting the well-being and dignity of every member of our student body, faculty, and community. We also believe moving forward with the event, originally scheduled for November 23, 2021, without first addressing questions and concerns from members of the Ellington community, would be a missed opportunity for a teachable moment.

We will lean into this moment as a community. We have engaged in listening sessions with our students and have allowed space for diverse viewpoints. We are committed to fostering a community where every individual feels both heard and supported. Those conversations are ongoing. Additionally, using Chappelle’s latest works as the impetus, we have expanded our Social Studies curriculum to include content related to political activism, civic engagement, arts activism, and the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Our objective is to uplift conversations around artistic freedom and artistic responsibility.

Through these endeavors, we want our students to own their art and understand that being an artist and public figure comes with both responsibility and an increased level of scrutiny. We recognize that not everyone will accept or welcome a particular artist’s point of view, product or craft, but reject the notion that a “cancel culture” is a healthy or constructive means to teach our students how society should balance creative freedom with protecting the rights and dignity of all its members.

We appreciate your continued support and welcome any questions or concerns you may have.