Top Drama School Apologizes to I May Destroy You’s Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu for Racist Incidents

I May Destroy You creator and star Michaela Coel and star Paapa Essiedu have received a formal apology from the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama for the “unacceptable” racism the two encountered while studying at the university. Both have spoken out about incidents they suffered through while attending the university.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Essiedu recalled the time that an instructor called him a racial slur during a class exercise. During an improvisation exercise that involved the professor playing a prison officer looking for drugs, he called the actor the N-word. At the time, he and Coel were the only Black students in the class.

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“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 said.

During a separate incident, that same teacher commented on Essiedu’s enunciation, stating that the actor spoke as if his mouth was “full of chocolate cake.”

The university’s statement regarding the incidents reads:

“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.”.

Essiedu graduated from Guildhall in 2012, and returned in 2020 to direct a student production of Ruby Thomas’ Either. The actor has made claims that the school’s acting syllabus was mainly geared for white students. The university, which is regarded as one of the top 10 performing arts institutions in the world, pledged to redevelop its acting curriculum and restructure its departmental staff, emphasizing “inclusivity, representation and wellbeing.”

Coel’s Experience at Guildhall School of Music and Drama

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Coel also recalled her own experiences with racism while attending Guildhall School, stating that she was called racial slurs on two different occasions. During her MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2018, she detailed one particular incident:

“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. ‘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,” Coel said.

These are not the only recent incidents where the school has been called out for negative behavior. Just last year, Guildhall found itself among a list of top drama schools accused of sexual misconduct. In September, the school began a program for staff and students on consent, sexual violence, and intervention.

Coel is best known for creating and starring in Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You. She was awarded the BAFTA Award for Best Female Comedy Performance for her work on Chewing Gum and the British Academy Television Award for Best Actress in 2021 for I May Destroy You. She made history as the first Black woman to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special for I May Destroy You.

Essiedu has appeared in many stage productions and in 2016, he won the Ian Charleson Award for his roles in the Royal Shakespeare Company productions of King Lear and Hamlet. He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy and British Academy Television Award for his work on I May Destroy You. He has upcoming roles in series The Lazarus Project, the A24 horror film Men, and the film Kill the Light.