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Paapa Essiedu and Michaela Coel Receive Apology for ‘Appalling’ Racism at Prestigious Drama School

Essiedu recently spoke out about being called racial slurs by a professor as part of an improvisation exercise.

Michaela Coel, Paapa Essideu

Michaela Coel, Paapa Essideu


Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu received a formal apology from shared alma mater Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

The prestigious U.K.-based school addressed the “appalling” racism the “I May Destroy You” co-stars endured during their tenure. Essiedu most recently spoke out about how a teacher used racial slurs during an improvisation exercise; the professor played a prison officer looking for drugs among prisoners, portrayed by the students.

“Suddenly she shouted: ‘Hey you, N-word, what have you got behind you?'” Essiedu told The Guardian. “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.”

Essiedu noted that he and Coel were the only Black students in the class. The “Men” star was later scolded by the same teacher for not enunciating and sounding like he had a mouth “full of chocolate cake.”

Essiedu added that the comment was “loaded in a million different ways,” adding, “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.”

Guildhall School has since issued a statement addressing the experience, saying, “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. 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 school also vowed to have a “significant redevelopment” of their acting curriculum, “including a departmental staff restructure” with a new emphasis on “inclusivity, representation and wellbeing.”

Coel previously opened up about a similar racially charged experience during 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,” Coel said. “‘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, who graduated from Guildhall in 2012 and later returned in 2020 to direct students in Ruby Thomas’ play “Either,” claimed the acting syllabus was primarily geared towards white students.

“I remember doing restoration comedies such as ‘Man of Mode’ about the aristocratic class — slave owners, basically. 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,” Essiedu said. “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.”

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