*Trigger warning: references to racial violence
When we connect to the past, we can heal the present, and when we do it together, the ripple effects can change the world.
Daniel Banks, Ph.D. and Adam W. McKinney, M.A. have been doing just that since 2006 as founders of DNAWORKS, a Fort Worth, Texas based “arts and service organization dedicated to furthering artistic expression and dialogue, focusing on issues of identity, culture, class, and heritage.”
A Complex Identity
The productions and programs that DNAWORKS has brought to 37 states and 17 countries are not meant to be merely seen but experienced. Disconnection and trauma are alchemized into belonging and healing, creating a sense of home for many who live outside of society’s traditional boxes.
Banks, a renowned director, choreographer and educator, whose credits include Shakespeare in the Park, National Theatre of Uganda, and Singapore Repertory Theatre, considers his own experience a driving force for his creativity:
For most of my life there has been this tension between how my family identifies, what people outside my family have identified me as being, and what the actual DNA tells and how to interpret that DNA within a U.S. context of identity locations or identity boxes. I find home around people who also don’t neatly line up and check off all the boxes.
McKinney, an accomplished dancer, choreographer and activist with performance credits including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Béjart Ballet Lausanne, shares a similar experience:
My parents met in the early 60s in college. My dad is Black and Native (American) and my mom is a white Ashkenazi Jew and so the way they came together and time they came together informs my experience of the world. I was raised with ideas of social justice and art was all around me.
Being asked throughout their careers to choose which identity boxes to place themselves in made it clear that no language or model for multiple identities existed in their line of work. DNAWORKS stepped in to challenge misperceptions and assumptions so that they, and others, would one day would not have to explain themselves to those unable to quickly label them.
For McKinney, the work seems destined. “The reason why you thought about that problem is because you are the person who is specifically designed to create a solution to that problem.”
A Co-Creation via DNAWORKS
One of the most unique components of a DNAWORKS production is audience integration. HaMapah/The Map, a multimedia genealogical dance journey (recently captured for film) traces McKinney’s heritage and concludes with a community story circle. The effect is even more powerful, and the lessons more integrated, than what one would get by simply watching a show and then leaving.
“How do we extend that moment so people can actually encounter one another, connect, and fully appreciate how related we all are?” Banks asked as the experience was conceived. “We imagine a world where we are doing it together and we try to hold and create space for that to happen.”
This audience participation has led to countless personal revelations, from a woman finding out the identity of the father she never knew to a Puerto Rican and Chinese college student who felt alone on campus meeting someone who shared his exact same heritage:
In these story circles you will have someone from one background tell a story, and then someone from, what one would think of in U.S. terms as a completely different background, stand up and say I had the exact same experience in my family.
A Community Heals via DNAWORKS
The story circle has fostered experiences of generational healing as well, some of which provided a very personal context to this Texas-based organization.
McKinney recounts, “We performed HaMapah/The Map live in Fort Worth, Texas, and we had people whose family owned enslaved Africans speaking in conversation with people whose family ran from the KKK.”
Without the context of this show, this very conversation might very well have never happened.
The Ku Klux Klan’s history in Fort Worth is inextricably tied with DNAWORKS’ future, one that includes taking the work out of the theater and into the world.
As theaters shuttered due to COVID-19, DNAWORKS took to the streets for Fort Worth Lynching Tour: Honoring the Memory of Mr. Fred Rouse, a group bike and car tour to the sites associated with the lynching of Mr. Fred Rouse in 1921. An augmented reality app featuring music, poetry and a eulogy by local artists accompanies the piece and will soon be available for anyone to download.
McKinney believes traveling back in time to tell the story of Mr. Rouse, a story that few are even familiar with, is necessary to move forward in a society where anti-racism work is still so relevant:
We devised a particular choreography of healing, parading through the same streets that the KKK paraded through, and reversing their route almost as a way to sweep away or cleanse the space.
The work was created to “generate community healing through memorial activism,” and it’s only the beginning of DNAWORKS’ commitment to telling this story. Tarrant County Coalition for Peace and Justice, a non-profit that McKinney co-founded and is President of, and that Banks sits on the Advisory Board for, won a sizeable grant from Rainwater Charitable Foundation to purchase the site of the lynching of Mr. Fred Rouse and transform it into a memorial park. Ground will break in December of 2021, the centenary of the death of Mr. Rouse.
A Transformation via DNAWORKS
Doubling down on community healing and connection, Banks and McKinney have partnered with other like-minded (and diversely represented) organizations in the Fort Worth area, forming a coalition dedicated to transforming 1012 North Main Street, a former KKK auditorium until 1931, into a center for art and community healing.
According to Banks, the project will “return resources to those communities that have suffered from the presence of the Klan and its ongoing impact. It will also address some of the food deserts in the north side of Fort Worth.” The center will feature farmers and artisan markets, low income-housing for artists and entrepreneurs, and incubators for micro-businesses.
This labor of love has received encouraging support from the community and members of city government, and according to Banks, they’ve been in conversation with over “3,000 (people) in the past 18 months, locally and nationally,” revealing that there is indeed a communal desire for belonging, creation and leaving the world a bit better than it was found.
Connection is in the DNA of Banks and McKinney, and their contributions prove that when we find one another, we can truly find ourselves. “And vice versa,” offers Banks. “By finding ourselves, we find one another.”