Dave Chappelle reportedly visited his old high school to speak to pupils days before Thanksgiving, encountering a mixed response from the student body.
On Tuesday, Chappelle stopped by D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts to take part in a Q&A session with staff and 580 students, according to Politico. He also handed out 600 Thanksgiving meals and tickets to a screening of his new film “Untitled” — a documentary about putting on a live comedy show while grappling with the pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
The website reported that Chappelle was accompanied by a camera crew and that his arrival was greeted with “a raucous reception of cheers and some boos.” As with his live comedy gigs, Chappelle requested that attendees lock their phones in magnetic pouches to prevent illicit recordings.
Eight students are understood to have questioned Chappelle directly, among them a 16-year-old who called Chappelle a “bigot” and said: “I’m 16 and I think you’re childish, you handled it like a child.”
According to two students who relayed the conversation to Politico the following day, Chappelle responded: “My friend, with all due respect, I don’t believe you could make one of the decisions I have to make on a given day.”
Some parents, meanwhile, were unhappy that Chappelle had used the N-word during his Q&A. When a student told him “Your comedy kills,” Chappelle responded using the N-word, saying: “[redacted] are killed every day.” The comedian’s spokesperson, Carla Sims, told Politico: “They are complaining that he talked and said the N-word. If anything, Dave is putting the school on the map.”
In response to another question, which Politico did not report verbatim but claimed was “antagonistic,” Chappelle told the performing arts school students: “I’m better than every instrumentalist, artist, no matter what art you do in this school, right now, I’m better than all of you. I’m sure that will change. I’m sure you’ll be household names soon.”
Politico also reported that the two students it had spoken to said that Chappelle responded to the students’ questions with jokes or laughter. When one pupil left the Q&A early, Chappelle said: “Of course she left early.” Sims apparently told the website that the student who had left the room “couldn’t even entertain the idea of a conversation.” It is unclear whether the student in question had been in conversation with Chappelle before her exit.
Despite the criticism, Chappelle appeared to harbor no ill will against the students, at one point turning to the camera to condemn potential death threats against the pupils who had protested him. “His whole tone changed,” one of the students told Politico. “He said, ‘This is my family and whether they know it or not I love these kids. I don’t want to hear about any threats to these kids. These kids don’t deserve that.’”
“He was really kind. If [only] he [had] acted that way the whole time … There was no reason to be mean to us. He was just laughing at kids.”
A spokesperson for the school, Savannah Overton, said that the majority of the students were supportive of the comedian. “During the conversation with students and staff, Chappelle specifically invited the voices of discontent to ask questions; however, as a result, the supporters of Chappelle became the silent majority,” Overton told Politico. “Our principal was approached by several students after the assembly who were disappointed that they were not able to voice their support for Chappelle in this forum.”
Chappelle has long been one of the school’s most prolific donors and supporters, donating millions of dollars to the establishment. In a recent statement, the school said the comedian had invited pupils to perform at numerous high-profile events, donated memorabilia including an Emmy Award to be displayed on its campus, given commencement speeches and hosted masterclasses for its pupils to which he has invited artists such as Bradley Cooper, Chris Tucker, Erykah Badu, Common and others.
On the day of Chappelle’s Q&A this week, the school had initially planned to name one of its theaters after the comedian. That has been postponed to April 2022 in the wake of his controversial Netflix special “The Closer,” with the school instead saying it would take the time to address “questions and concerns from members of the Ellington community” in the hopes of turning the situation into a “teachable moment.”
Variety has contacted Chappelle’s representatives for comment.