Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu receive apology for “appalling” racism at top drama school

Essiedu said a teacher used a racial slur while they were students

Paapa Essiedu and Michaela Coel have received an apology from a prestigious drama school over “appalling” racism they experienced as students.

In an interview with the Guardian, Essiedu said a teacher at Guildhall School of Music and Drama used a racial slur while he was taking part in an improvisation exercise. He was in the group with Coel, who were the only two Black students in the group.

Essiedu, who stars with Coel in I May Destroy You, said: “Suddenly she shouted: ‘Hey you, N-word, what have you got behind you?’”

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He added: “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.”

Michaela Coel, Arabella, I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel as Arabella in ‘I May Destroy You’ Credit: Natalie Seery

The actor said the same teacher told him he did not enunciate properly and that he spoke like his mouth was “full of chocolate cake”.

Guildhall school has released a statement in response, apologising “unreservedly for the racism experienced by Paapa Essiedu, Michaela Coel and other alumni” while studying at the school.

They added: “The experiences he shares were appalling and unacceptable.

“We have 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.”

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Coel had previously referred to the incident 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.

“‘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.”

After graduating from the school in 2012, Essiedu returned in 2020 to direct Guildhall students in the Ruby Thomas play Either.

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