Lance McGee performs as Unique Derique. Although McGee works in professional counseling and performs as a clown, both sides of him are involved in healing. Credit: Eric Carmichael

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Unique Derique will be performing at the Yerba Buena Children’s Garden in San Francisco on July 22.

And Lance/Derique McGee is speaking to Oakland Rotary on June 23. To join in person or virtually contact execadmin@oakland-rotary.org.

Lance McGee uses two very different email signatures, representing his parallel careers. One reads “Yours in Foolish Fun, Unique Derique,” and the other, “Lance McGee, Trauma-informed Wellness Consultant.” An internationally celebrated clown performer and a trauma-informed wellness counselor, for McGee, humor and healing have always gone hand in hand. When he’s not counseling teachers at Frick United Academy of Language in East Oakland, he’s performing at Warriors’ games, festivals, and libraries.

Growing up in Berkeley with a mother in the theater community, by 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 an early age,” McGee said in a recent interview.

A pivotal event in his life took place when he was 15, 40 years ago. He was in his bedroom, wearing a hairdryer cap over rollers, animatedly miming a robot getting charged up. Neighbor Arina Isaacson, a friend of his mother from the Berkeley Neighborhood Arts program, passed by the room and laughed. 

“She thought I was hilarious,” McGee said. 

“You belong in clown school,” Isaacson told him. Herself a clowning pioneer, master puppeteer, and storyteller, Isaacson knew talent when she saw it.  McGee said that she became something akin to his “clown mother.”

He joined her clowning class Saturday mornings, learning juggling, gymnastics, unicycle riding, 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, he graduated from Berkeley High School and joined the renowned Pickle Family Circus when he was 18. For his clown act, he used the name Derique McGee, a modification of his middle name Derek, which was also the name his family and friends knew him by. Further expanding his skill set, the troupe traveled all along the West Coast, McGee was inspired by local greats such as Bill Irwin and Larry Pisoni. After three years, he joined Make-A-Circus, which performed outdoor shows for kids in underserved neighborhoods in the Bay Area.

It was the early 90s, and McGee had developed an innovative suit, using wireless sensors, that allowed him to play his body as a percussive instrument. “The act was quite unique,” he said. Featured on international television and on The Arsenio Hall Show, McGee was at the same time starting a family (he now has two children and three grandchildren). 

And then, in 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 go mainstream. He became disillusioned with his agent, who wanted to own 70% of his name. When he refused the deal, he was blackballed and found it hard to pick up gigs. Auditions in Los Angeles were also difficult to manage and he felt himself at a crossroads. 

What got him through this tough time and kept him energized was an interaction he had in the late 1980s with the legendary performer Sammy Davis, Jr. After a Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame ceremony where McGee performed his hambone act, Davis approached him, saying he loved the show and wanted to manage him. Although that never came to pass, it gave McGee the affirmation he needed to continue. 

“It made me feel like I’d been acknowledged and validated by an ancestor,” he said. “It was like a spirit going through him connected with me.”

McGee started doing a lot of Bay Area gigs at festivals and libraries, as well as teaching circus arts. When he was in his forties, he realized “I’d better have a backup career. When he learned about a practice called drama therapy, the arts and health theme completely resonated.

McGee studied at the California Institute for Integral Studies, where he earned his master’s degree in counseling psychology with a concentration 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 grad school he reclaimed his birth name, Lance McGee, the name he now uses when he works as a counselor.

Lance McGee works as a teachers’ counselor at Frick United Academy of Language in East Oakland. Credit: courtesy of Lance McGee

Through a grant from the East Bay Agency for Children, McGee became a school site mental health clinician 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 actions taken against students. 

“Teachers also need support,” he said. “They don’t get trained in how to navigate students’ traumas, or how they might be projecting their own.”

Again, with support from the East Bay Agency for Children, as well as Kaiser Permanente’s Resilience Initiative, McGee was hired at Frick Unified Academy of Language, a middle school in East Oakland, where he has served as a trauma-informed wellness coach for staff, teachers and administrators for the last 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 for a check-in, and he supports them in the areas of self-care and in dealing with disruptions in the classroom. 

“It’s important to be here and feel the pulse and the culture, to make suggestions to the principal, and to support staff,” he said. “I haven’t heard of anyone else doing this.” 

Other schools will send their staff to conferences and pass out materials, but no one has a designated counselor accountable for the work every day.

McGee’s professional development day for staff might include guided meditation, self-care techniques, clowning, music–and laughter. “Healing humor and playfulness add value to what I’m offering,” he said.

When it was learned recently that the grant that funded McGee’s position was coming to an end, teachers spoke out on behalf of the program’s importance, and benefits.

“School systems rarely care about the health of the adults working their buildings. Teaching and working in schools is a very emotionally (and physically) draining profession,” one teacher wrote in a note of support. “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 both for my students and also for myself.”

“Having a space where I can check-in and take time for myself during the day has helped me to be more focused, less stressed and to remind me that if I am not able to take a little time for myself that it will come out in other ways with my team and kids I work with,” another teacher wrote. “I like how they are voluntary, but also hold me accountable to my self-care and wellbeing, especially in these intense times of 2020.”

East Bay Agency for Children recently decided to continue supporting McGee’s work at Frick two days a week while the group tries to secure additional funding. They also want him to help replicate the program he created, one that some teachers have credited with taking them off a burnout track. 

McGee’s enthusiasm for the work has not abated. 

“I’m on a mission to talk with other organizations about the model,” he said. “Teachers badly need this support, and I’m very optimistic.” 

And he’s still clowning. “My performing is part of my own self-care,” McGee said. “It’s cathartic for me to relate to the audience and to project the message to be in your joy, whatever that is.”

Unique Derique performed this past weekend at East Oakland’s Liberation Park for the Oakland Library’s Read Watch Do summer event series.

Clown mentor and long-time friend Isaacson, who also transitioned from performing to a career as an executive coach, says of McGee: “He’s created his life and work exactly as he wanted. He’s a man of service, and I admire that.”

For now, Unique Derique and Lance McGee are living in perfect harmony.

“I love both careers; everyone needs humor and healing,” he says.

C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms.com and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.