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Chappelle Honored Ellington Students After His Kennedy Center Honors

Chappelle honored Ellington students after his Kennedy Center honors

On the first Tuesday of 2020, PBS aired the star-studded festivities as Dave Chappelle received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center.

The event actually took place in late October. One day after being feted by the likes of Tiffany Haddish, John Legend, Sarah Silverman, and Jon Stewart, Chappelle returned to his beloved alma mater, Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

He happened to bring some friends from the Kennedy Center celebration, including Bradley Cooper, Erykah Badu, Common, and Chris Tucker.

“When I found out I won the award and they were telling me some of the people who were coming to honor me, I immediately thought it’d be cool if we could go to Ellington and do master classes,” Chappelle said after addressing an audience that included Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser in the school theater.

“When I was here, Spike Lee came once,” Chappelle said. “Quincy Jones came. They talked to us. I vividly remember how profoundly that affected me and made everything seem so possible.”

Inspiration can flow both ways

Angela Jones, Ellington’s Director of Arts, said details were evolving less than 24 hours before Chappelle arrived. There was uncertainty about who would come with him – and who couldn’t make it – until the last minute.

But the staff was successful in surprising the students. “Some of them knew about the Dave Chappelle part,” Jones said, “but they were truly surprised about some of his friends and guests that were in the building.”

Students were treated to concurrent master classes before assembling in the theater, where Badu and Common had tutored one group. Cooper and Tucker coached another cluster in the Performance Hall. Musicians Frederic Yonnet and Thundercat advised others in an orchestra room.

Museum Studies students soaked up advice from Timothy Anne Burnside, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. By day’s end, they had created an “Emmy Case” exhibit that Chappelle visited with his family in the Ellington Gallery

“I’ve known Dave for a while and I wanted to come see what school he went to,” said Tucker, who was impressed by students’ questions. “Yesterday was great at the award show and everything was awesome. But this was the best part of the weekend.

“You really learn something about yourself when kids ask these great and important questions,” he said. “I love these types of environments.”

Chappelle said he wasn’t surprised that students inspired his friends as much as vice versa. He also felt revived while walking around the building and interacting with aspiring young artists.

“For us, personally, it does kind of fill your tank and erode some of that cynicism that cakes up on you,” Chappelle said. “It sounds cliché but it’s true. Having gone here and seeing what’s been done – and how my career grew and the school’s doing well – it makes me feel like the world is not a terrible place. It gives me a lot of hope.

“This is one of my favorite places in the world.”

And he’s one of DC’s favorite sons.

Ellington roots run deep

Bowser declared Oct. 27 as “Dave Chappelle Day” and presented him with a key to the city. “I don’t give out many of those,” she told the audience after master classes ended. The theater erupted when Chappelle took the stage and said Ellington students should honor him each year on Oct. 27 … by skipping school.

“I’m hugely grateful for Dave Chappelle,” Bowser said later from backstage. “He has never forgotten Duke Ellington School of the Arts and what it has meant to his career. Anytime he’s in DC he tries to work in an appearance at Ellington and it means so much to these kids who are just like him.”

Tia Powell Harris, the school’s CEO, credited Chappelle and his team for the “mega master class” concept. It enabled students to partake in the huge Twain Award weekend without attending the ceremony or any associated events.

“The accomplishments of Mr. Chappelle are grand,” Harris said during her remarks. “But we get the shine.”

During his closing remarks at Ellington, Chappelle urged students to “protect your heart and protect your art,” and avoid becoming cynics. He reflected how he and some of his fellow classmates became best friends to this day.

“Stay true to yourselves and be good to each other,” he said. “Just know that I’m honored to be able to say I went to this school. And one day, you will be, too.

“I’m very proud of all of you.”


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