I May Destroy You's Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu receive apology from drama school for "appalling" racism

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Michaela Coel, Paapa Essiedu
Michaela Coel, Paapa Essiedu

I May Destroy You’s Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu have received a formal apology from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for the “appalling and unacceptable” racism they each experienced while attending the prestigious university.

“Guildhall School apologizes unreservedly for the racism experienced by Paapa Essiedu, Michaela Coel and other alumni whilst they were studying at the school. The experiences he shares were appalling and unacceptable,” the school shares in a statement, per The Guardian.

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“We have since undertaken a sustained program of action to address and dismantle longstanding 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,” the statement continued.

In a recent interview with the publication, Men’s Essiedu discussed a moment in which an instructor called him a racial slur during an improvisation exercise, which involved the professor playing a prison officer looking for drugs among prisoners played by the students. The actor noted that he and Coel were the only Black students in the class.

“Suddenly she shouted: ‘Hey you, N-word, what have you got behind you?’” Essiedu said. “That was a real ‘time stops’ moment. It was like, surely this can’t be happening. We 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,” Essiedu continued. During another incident in the same class, the teacher told Essiedu he did not enunciate clearly and spoke as if his mouth was “full of chocolate cake.”

In 2018, Coel shared her own experience being called racial slurs by instructors at Guildhall School.

“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?’” Coel explained. “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.”

Essiedu graduated from the school in 2012. He lated returned in 2020 to direct direct students in Ruby Thomas’ play Either. In the interview with The Guardian, he reflects on how the school’s white-centric syllabus negatively impacts Black and brown students.

“I remember doing restoration comedies such as Man Of Mode about the aristocratic class—slave owners, basically,” Essiedu said. “These plays ask a very different question of a Black or brown actor whose ancestry might have been negatively impacted by those particular people than they do of actors who don’t have that same historical context. It was like, oh, that person is doing it right and you’re not doing it right. They reduced it to the idea that they were doing it right because they’re better at acting than you whereas there was a whole raft of other things at play.”