In an interview with the Guardian, Essiedu revealed that he and Coel were in an improvisation class together when a teacher, playing a prison officer searching for drugs, addressed him with a racial slur. “Suddenly she shouted: ‘Hey you, N-word, what have you got behind you?’” Essiedu told the newspaper. “That was a real ‘time stops’ moment. It was like, surely this can’t be happening.”
Essiedu said that he and his eventual “I May Destroy You” co-star and writer Coel “were so shocked we just stayed in the improvisation, so we were like: ‘No, we haven’t got anything behind us.’ We were shellshocked by what had happened and shocked that it had come out of the mouth of a teacher.
“It so clearly shows a lack of respect and understanding of what the experience is of someone who is in that position, in that skin, in that institution,” he added.
The “Men” actor also said that the teacher had criticized his enunciation, telling him it sounded as though his mouth was “full of chocolate cake.”
Coel previously discussed the incident in her 2018 MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival. “I was called a [N-word] twice in drama school. The first was by a teacher during a ‘walk in the space’ improvisation that had nothing to do with race. ‘Oi, [N-word], what you got for me?’ We students continued walking in the space, the two Black boys and I glancing at each other whenever we passed. ‘Who’s she talking to?’ we’d whisper. ‘Boy, not me.’ ‘Nah that was for you.’ Passing around responsibility like a hot potato, muffling our laugh-snorts. I wonder what the other students thought of our complicity.”
In a statement, the school issued an apology to both Coel and Essiedu.
“Guildhall School apologizes unreservedly for the racism experienced by Paapa Essiedu, Michaela Coel and other alumni whilst they were studying at the School,” a spokesperson told Variety. “The experiences [Essiedu] shares were appalling and unacceptable. We have since undertaken a sustained program of action to address and dismantle long-standing systemic racism within the Acting Program, including commissioning an external report into historic racism and a comprehensive and ongoing process of staff training and reflection. We have also undertaken a significant redevelopment of our acting curriculum, including a departmental staff restructure, so that our teaching and learning culture prioritizes inclusivity, representation and wellbeing. We understand that this work is long-term and will require sustained commitment to build a culture that is inclusive and equitable for everyone.”
It is not the first time Guildhall, which also counts Lily James and Brenda Blethyn among its former pupils, has found itself at the center of controversy. Last year, the academy was among a number of top drama schools accused of sexual misconduct.