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Inside Dave Chappelle’s ‘Art as Activism’ workshop he started after ‘The Closer’ controversy

Dec 04, 2023

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Singing, dancing, acting and comedy are all defined as performance art. However, to comedian Dave Chappelle, that art can also be activism. 

“I am armed to the teeth. I have no gun, I ain’t got no knife, but I have real power ’cause I have a real voice and a refined talent,” Chappelle told students at his alma mater, Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. 

Chappelle was making one of his frequent visits to the school during a workshop about art as activism. 

Duke Ellington is a performing arts school that teaches all the standard subjects but relies on donations for its arts education which includes theater, music, technical design, production and more. When Dave Chappelle visits, he’s the benefactor who gives students life lessons and insight into the art business that few have. 

You gotta buckle up, you gotta really be ready, ’cause when you do it for a living it’s mean, the business is mean. And the art — if you do it right — will keep you warm from there.

Dave Chappelle

“It takes an enormous amount of courage on your part and patience and understanding and empathy, all the things that make good art. You gotta buckle up, you gotta really be ready, ’cause when you do it for a living it’s mean, the business is mean. And the art — if you do it right — will keep you warm from there,” Chappelle told one class.  

The “Art as Activism” workshop is part of the school’s social studies curriculum. The program’s impetus was a national controversy. 

It goes back to 2021 when Netflix released Chappelle’s comedy special “The Closer,” one of the most watched specials in the streaming service’s history. It contains jokes that the LGTBQ+ community said are transphobic, and there were calls for Netflix to take it down. 

At the time, Chappelle had donated $100,000 to Ellington and in return the school was going to name the new theater after him. But after students protested, Chappelle declined the honor because he didn’t want his name to distract from the good work of the school. Instead, he named it the “Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression.”  Netflix then published the speech he gave at the naming ceremony. 

“After ‘The Closer’ when the kids were mad at me I gotta tell you that was quite the day. All the kids were screaming and yelling. I remember I said to the kids, I go, ‘Well okay what do you guys think I did wrong?’ and a line formed,” Chappelle said to laughs during the naming ceremony, published on Netflix as “Dave Chappelle: What’s in a Name?”  

Chappelle wanted to do more, so he helped organize a series of workshops about art as activism. 

He takes hours going from classroom to classroom educating these students on life in the art business. 

“What advice would you give a young person who wants to be part of the industry that you all are in?” a Duke Ellington senior asked Chappelle during a Q&A. 

“Sometimes what is artistically true will not be good for your finances. And you will have to make very difficult decisions and you can’t be big babies about it,” Chappelle answered. “So what do you do? I’ll tell you what I do, I usually choose art over commerce and the commerce usually works itself out.” 

When Chappelle arrives at Duke Ellington, the students can’t contain their excitement. Kids yell “we love you Dave,” one student asked him for a hug to which he obliged and the crowd went wild. So however unfavorable some of them found “The Closer,” the community’s reactions make clear they have moved on to a new chapter, the one where Duke loves Dave.

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Bogan: Singing, dancing, acting and comedy are all defined as performance art. But to comedian Dave Chappelle, that art can also be activism. 

Chapelle: I am armed to the teeth. I have no gun, I ain’t got no knife, but I have real power cause I have a real voice and a refined talent

 

Bogan: Chappelle was making one of his frequent visits to the school during a workshop about art as activism. 

Ellington is a public school that teaches all the standard subjects but relies on donations for its arts education which includes theater, music, technical design, production and more. But when Dave Chappelle visits, he’s the benefactor who gives students life lessons and insight into the art business that few have. 

 

Chapelle: “It takes an enormous amount of courage on your part and patience and understanding and empathy, all the things that make good art. You gotta buckle up, you gotta really be ready, cause when you do it for a living it’s mean, the business is mean. And the art, if you do it right, will keep you warm from there.”

 

Bogan: The “art as activism” workshop is part of the school’s social studies curriculum. The program’s impetus was a national controversy. 

It goes back to 2021 when Netflix released Chappelle’s comedy special “The Closer”, one of the most watched specials in Netflix history. It contains jokes that the LGTBQ+ community said are transphobic, and there were calls for Netflix to take it down. 

At the time, Chappelle had donated $100,000 to Ellington and in return the school was going to name the new theater after him. But after students protested, Chappelle declined the honor because he didn’t want his name to distract from the good work of the school. Instead, he named it the Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression.  Netflix then published the speech he gave at the naming ceremony. 

 

Chapelle: “After ‘The Closer’ when the kids were mad at me I gotta tell you that was quite the day. All the kids were screaming and yelling. I remember I said to the kids, I go, ‘well okay what do you guys think I did wrong?’ and a line formed.”

 

Bogan: Chappelle wanted to do more, so he helped organize a series of workshops about art as activism. 

He takes hours going from classroom to classroom educating these students on life in the art business. 

 

Student: “What advice would you give a young person who wants to be part of the industry that you all are in?”

 

Chapelle: “Sometimes what is artistically true will not be good for your finances. And you will have to make very difficult decisions and you can’t be big babies about it. So what do you do? I tell you what I do, I usually choose art over commerce and the commerce usually works itself out.” 

 

Bogan: When Chappelle arrives at Ellington, the students can’t contain their excitement. Kids yell ‘we love you Dave’, one student asked him for a hug – he obliged and the crowd went wild.  So however unfavorable some of them found ‘The Closer’, the community’s reactions make clear they have moved on to a new chapter, in which Duke loves Dave.