Drama school apologises to Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu for "appalling" racist experience

"We were shellshocked by what had happened and shocked that it had come out of the mouth of a teacher."

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 19: Michaela Coel attends the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards at L.A. LIVE on September 19, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

"We were shellshocked by what had happened and shocked that it had come out of the mouth of a teacher."

I May Destroy You’s Michaela Coel has spoken many times over the year about the racism she has faced over her lifetime, and now she and her co-star Paapa Essiedu have received an apology from their drama school. 

Essiedu and Coel have both previously recalled an incident at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where they were called a racial slur by an unnamed female professor. 

Guildhall is a famed London drama school which has churned out stars including Daniel Craig, Lily James, Amber James and more. Coel discussed the moment during a 2018 lecture, while Essiedu spoke to The Guardian’s Saturday magazine about the moment recently. 

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In a statement to The Guardian from a Guildhall spokesperson, the school said, “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.”

It continued, “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.”

Essiedu spoke about the incident in detail to The Guardian, explaining the incident happened during an improvisation set in a prison. Essiedu, Coel and their fellow classmates played prisoners, while their professor played a prison officer according to the outlet. 

Paapa Essiedu / Credit: David M. Benett

During the scene, in which their professor was performing a staged search of the students, Essiedu recalled, “Suddenly she shouted: ‘Hey you, N-word, what have you got behind you?”

He added both he and Coel were “shellshocked” by the teacher’s words, describing it as “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,'" he said.

"We were shellshocked by what had happened and shocked that it had come out of the mouth of a teacher."

In 2018, Coel also referred to what appears to be the same incident during her James MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV and Film Festival. She recalled that there was also a third Black student in the class, adding she was the first Black female student to have been accepted to Guildhall in five years. 

Michaela Coel at the Primetime Emmys, where her show I May Destroy You won two awards / Credit: Getty Images

Coel said, “I was called a n****r 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****r, 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.”

She added drama school had been “problematic” for her, continuing, “I wonder what the other students thought of our complicity.”

Coel and Essiedu have yet to respond publicly to Guildhall’s apology. 

Following their education at Guildhall, Coel and Essiedu have gone on to have wildly successful careers. Beyond her many onscreen roles, Coel has served as showrunner on two award-winning shows Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You - the latter of which scooped up two Emmy awards last year.

Essiedu has made a name for himself playing significant roles in productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Hamlet in the troupe’s show of the same name. He rejoined his classmate Coel onscreen for her show I May Destroy You and stars in the upcoming series The Lazarus Project.

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