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Lance McGee uses two very different email signatures, which represent his parallel careers. One reads “Yours at Foolish Fun, Unique Derique,” and the other, “Lance McGee, Trauma Informed Wellness Consultant.” An internationally renowned clown and trauma-informed wellness counselor, for McGee, humor and healing have always gone hand in hand. When he’s not advising teachers at the Frick United Academy of Language in East Oakland, he performs at Warriors games, festivals and libraries.
Growing up in Berkeley with a mother in the theater community, at age 10 McGee was exposed to Transcendental Meditation, vegetarianism, alternative health, as well as theater and improvisation.
“Arts and health were my two paths from a young age,” McGee said in a recent interview.
A pivotal event in his life took place when he was 15, 40 years ago. She was in his bedroom, hair-dryer cap on rollers, animatedly imitating a charging robot. Neighbor Arina Isaacson, a friend of her mother’s from the Berkeley Neighborhood Arts program, passed by the room and laughed.
“She thought I was hilarious,” McGee said.
“You belong to clown school,” Isaacson told him. Herself a pioneer of slapstick, puppet master and storyteller, Isaacson knew her talent when she saw it. McGee said that she became something of a “clown mother” to her.
She joined her clown class on Saturday mornings, learning juggling, gymnastics, riding a unicycle and hambone, an improvised rhythmic body music with roots in African dances brought to North America by enslaved people. After studying circus arts for three years, she graduated from Berkeley High School and joined the famous Pickle Family Circus when he was 18 years old. For his clown act, she used the name Derique McGee, a modification of his middle name Derek, which was also the name by which his family and friends knew him. Further expanding her skill set as the company toured along the West Coast, McGee drew inspiration from local greats like Bill Irwin and Larry Pisoni. After three years, she joined Make-A-Circus, which put on outdoor shows for children in underserved Bay Area neighborhoods.
It was the early 1990s, and McGee had developed an innovative suit, using wireless sensors, that allowed him to play his body like a percussion instrument. “The act was quite unique,” he said. Featured on international television and on The Arsenio Hall Show, McGee was simultaneously raising a family (he now has two children and three grandchildren).
And then, putting a twist on a well-known theme, he said: “I ran away from the circus to pursue my own career.”
In the mid-1990s, he experienced a professional setback in his quest to become mainstream. He became disillusioned with his agent, who wanted to own 70% of his name. When he turned down the deal, he was shut out and found it hard to get jobs. The auditions in Los Angeles were also difficult to manage and he felt at a crossroads.
What got him through this tough time and kept him energized was an interaction he had in the late 1980s with legendary actor Sammy Davis, Jr. After a Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame ceremony where McGee performed his hambone act, Davis approached him and told him that he loved the show and wanted to handle it. Although that never happened, he gave McGee the affirmation he needed to continue.
“It made me feel like an ancestor had recognized and validated me,” he said. “It was like a spirit passing through him and connecting with me.”
McGee began doing many concerts around the Bay Area at festivals and libraries, as well as teaching circus arts. When he was in his mid-40s, he realized that “he better have a career as an understudy. When he learned about a practice called drama therapy, the theme of arts and health completely resonated.
McGee studied at the California Institute for Integrative Studies, where she earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology with a specialization in drama therapy. Going through a difficult divorce at the time, he learned the value of his own therapy and much about himself.
It was in graduate school that he reverted to his birth name, Lance McGee, the name he now uses when working as a counselor.
Through a grant from the East Bay Agency for Children, McGee became a mental health clinician at the school for three years, where he counseled children at Oakland’s Hoover and Roots elementary schools. What he observed over time was the stress teachers were under, and how this often resulted in punitive action against students.
“Teachers also need support,” he said. “They don’t get training on how to navigate students’ traumas or how they might be projecting their own.”
Again, with the support of the East Bay Agency for Children, as well as the Kaiser Permanente Resiliency Initiative, McGee was hired at Frick Unified Academy of Language, a middle school in East Oakland, where he served as an informed wellness coach. on trauma for staff. , teachers, and administrators for the past six and a half years. His goal is to create a model learning environment that is safer and less disruptive. Many teachers visit him once a week to check in and he supports them in the areas of self-care and handling interruptions in the classroom.
“It’s important to be here and feel the pulse and the culture, make suggestions to the director and support the staff,” he said. “I haven’t heard of anyone else doing this.”
Other schools will send their staff to conferences and hand out materials, but none have a designated counselor responsible for the work every day.
McGee’s professional development day for staff may include guided meditation, self-care techniques, horseplay, music and laughter. “Healing humor and fun add value to what I offer,” she said.
When news recently broke that the grant that funded McGee’s position was coming to an end, teachers spoke up for the importance and benefits of the program.
“School systems rarely care about the health of the adults who work in their buildings. Teaching and working in schools is a very emotionally (and physically) draining profession,” one teacher wrote in a support note. “Mr. McGee has been someone I could turn to when I was really struggling, as well as someone to celebrate with when I saw positive changes happening for both my students and myself.”
“Having a space where I can check in and take some time for myself during the day has helped me stay more focused, less stressed and remind myself that if I’m not able to take some time for myself, it will come out. in other ways with my team and the kids I work with,” another teacher wrote. “I like how they are volunteers, but also make me responsible for my personal care and well-being, especially in these intense times of 2020.”
The East Bay Agency for Children recently decided to continue supporting McGee’s work at Frick two days a week while the group tries to raise additional funds. They also want her to help replicate the program she created, one that some teachers have credited with getting them off the burnout path.
McGee’s enthusiasm for the job has not diminished.
“I’m on a mission to talk to other organizations about the model,” he said. “Teachers urgently need this support, and I am very optimistic.”
And he continues to clown. “My acting is part of my own personal care,” said McGee. “It’s cathartic for me to relate to the audience and project the message to be in their joy, whatever it is.”
Unique Derique performed last weekend at East Oakland’s Liberation Park for the Oakland Library’s Read Watch Do summer event series.
Isaacson, a clown mentor and longtime friend who also transitioned from acting to an executive coaching career, says of McGee, “He’s created his life and work exactly the way he wanted. He is a man of service, and I admire him.”
For now, Unique Derique and Lance McGee live in perfect harmony.
“I love both races; everyone needs humor and healing,” she says.