By Neruda Williams, Special to the AFRO
DMV native, celebrated comedian, and now the newly minted Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor awardee gave back in a big way on Monday, Oct. 28, when he surprised his alma mater, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, for a day of workshops with some of his special friends.
As one might expect, Chappelle’s list of close friends is a who’s who, and to the surprise and excitement of anyone present at Duke Ellington School of the Arts last Monday afternoon, some of those guests included: actor and comedian Chris Tucker, Academy Award nominated actor Bradley Cooper, legendary musicians and actors Common and Erykah Badu, musician and producer Thundercat, harmonica player Frederic Yonnet and Houston rapper Trey The Truth. These stars along with other celebrities came to impart wisdom to Duke Ellington students, while also taking in the wonder of the young budding artists.
In addition, to the star artists, both D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the District’s Representative in the United States Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, presented proclamations to Dave Chappelle in honor of his work, recent award, which he received Sunday, and his efforts to give back to his beloved alma mater.
Creative Director of the Harlem Comedy Festival, Neruda Williams, served as a correspondent for the AFRO during the fun-filled, artistic day, and caught up with the Mark Twain awardee and District treasure.
AFRO: What is it like getting the Mark Twain Award?
DC: Just to be recognized for your work in any capacity is amazing, but the Twain prize is special because it’s a cumulative thing. It’s not any one thing that gets you the Twain award. It’s like they took a look at all of it. To be on a list with names like Lorne Michaels, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Eddie Murphy, these are people that I wildly admire. And for them to say you’re [I’m] like them in any way is a great honor.
AFRO: The After Party?
Off the chain! There’s many Mark Twain awards, but this was the only one that had Mos Def, Common, and Erykah Badu, free styling, and then Chris Tucker singing gospel. We like to have fun.
AFRO: How do you feel about old Ellington versus new Ellington and, in other words, the gentrification of D.C.? (Note: Duke Ellington underwent major renovations, and moved back into their original building on 35th and R Streets N.W. in 2017).
DC: Two different answers, I like new Ellington, because at the Duke Ellington School we’re given the best of the best. Oh man, do these kids deserve it, you know what I mean? And as far as the city of Washington is concerned, for me it’s kind of like a dude who just got out of jail and doesn’t know where anything is anymore. You know? Where did everybody go?
I don’t know if there’s anything they can do that can stop gentrification. I’m happy that Washington’s a safer city and I hope it fights to preserve the culture of the city and that people who are longstanding residents have a way to stay if they want to stay. And if they want to leave then I’m glad that they’re getting as much money as they possibly can for their investment and their homes. And I’m just grateful for what the city once was and optimistic for the future.
AFRO/ NW: As director of one of the few Black Comedy festivals in the country, I have to ask where are the Black owned comedy clubs and how do you feel about the lack thereof?
DC: That’s a great idea. You know what though- I’m not sure that there is anymore. I know Atlanta has one because it’s like D.C., another Black excellence type city. We as Black people have such a unique vantage point for all of earth-an entire people that was displaced and erased. Our whole culture was actually reborn here. We made this almost from scratch. And it’s always humbling and awe inspiring to see how influential African American culture is globally. Like now that I travel the world, you’d be shocked, like I’ve flown to Paris with James Brown, and seen the representatives from the French government greet him as maestro, and walk him through customs. I’d never seen that before. It was like he was in a borderless world- because he’s us. He sings our story; he talks about our pain. So I just think you’ve got to get out in that world and see it, because there’s a lot of love for us out there. We have a wonderful amazing story to tell and you should tell it.
Neruda Williams is a comedian and entrepreneur, who serves as creative director of The Harlem Comedy Festival.