Prestigious Drama School Apologizes To HBO Stars Over Racism

They should apologize more.

By Michileen Martin | Published

HBO rasied by wolves

If you think an institution ranked as one of the top ten performing arts schools in the entire world is somehow immune from racism, there is good reason for you to reconsider that notion. This week found London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama issuing a public apology to stars of the Emmy winning HBO drama I May Destroy You for the racism two of the show’s stars experienced while they were students. The racism included — but was not limited to — the future stars having a racial slur yelled at them by a teacher in front of their class.

In response to the interview with the Guardian, in which I May Destroy You stars Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu talked about the racism they faced at Guildhall, the world-renowned school apologized, stating, “Guildhall School apologises 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’s spokesperson further said that Guildhall has “since undertaken a sustained programme of action to address and dismantle longstanding systemic racism within the acting programme, including commissioning an external report into historic racism and a comprehensive and ongoing process of staff training and reflection.”

i may destroy you
Paapa Essiedu on I May Destroy You

What happened to prompt such a swift response? Well, among other things, Paapa Essiedu — who plays Kwame on I May Destroy You — talked about what he later called “a real ‘time stops’ moment.” Essiedu, Coel, and other students were improvising a scene with an unnamed teacher. The students were playing prisoners and the teacher was a guard who was searching for drugs. He said the teacher turned to him and Coel — the only Black students in the group — and yelled, “Hey you, N-word, what have you got behind you?” It should go without saying, “N-word” is what Essiedu used to replace what the teacher actually said.

“It was like, surely this can’t be happening,” Essiedu recalled. “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 — now an Emmy-nominated star of I May Destroy You as well as the first Black man to play Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company — said the same teacher criticized the actor’s speech by saying he sounded as if his mouth was “full of chocolate cake.”

According to the I May Destroy You stars, however, it wasn’t just the more blatant instances like that which darkened their time at Guildhall, but the very fact that the material they had to work with was culturally narrow. “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.” He also claimed he was more harshly judged for his performances because white critics didn’t understand that he was dealing with a context they knew nothing about. “It was like, oh, that person is doing it right and you’re not doing it right,” Essiedu said. “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.”

Michaela Coel on I May Destroy You

Last June, Michaela Coel confirmed that season 1 of I May Destroy You would not have a follow-up. You can watch all twelve episodes of that season on HBO.