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Production company brings new 'DNA' to Pittsburgh

A person stands on a stage next to another person with a cello.
Casey Bowman
"Hollow Roots," featuring Maritri Garrett (left) and Nicole Gramlich, is among the shows produced by DNAWORKS, which recently set up shop in Pittsburgh.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

A new production company with an international footprint has quietly set up shop in Pittsburgh.

It’s DNAWORKS, which was founded in New York City in 2006 to foster “dialogue and healing through the arts.” Its goal is to center the voices of people of color — DNAWORKS uses the term “global majority” — and LGBTQ people in theater, dance, film, art installations and more.

Most DNAWORKS projects tour, and the group has worked in 39 states and 18 countries, from Idaho and Ohio to Israel and Serbia.

Current touring productions include “The Real James Bond … Was Dominican,” a multimedia show written and performed by Christopher Rivas. It recounts the experiences of a Dominican-American boy who learns about Porfirio Rubirosa, the real-life Dominican diplomat and playboy whom many consider the key inspiration for Ian Fleming’s 007. Since it hit the road in 2018, the show has played Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Miami and elsewhere.

DNAWORKS creates shows and community events collaboratively. Currently in development is “The Secret Sharer,” a dance-theater work based on Joseph Conrad’s classic 1909 novella. Six core company members, including a director, a choreographer, and a composer, are engaged in a multi-year process of “devising” the work in a series of artistic residencies in cities around the world (and, during the pandemic, online).

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That show was partly inspired by DNAWORKS co-founder Daniel Banks’ experience, as a youth, of reading Conrad’s dreamlike story about a sea captain who shelters a mysterious stowaway who is a kind of doppelganger. “For the first time, I felt, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not so strange for wanting to be close to another male human,’” said Banks. He said the project — currently scheduled to premiere in August 2024 — is also informed by reports of attacks on, or suicides of, LGBTQ teens.

Also in development is “We the Messiah,” a hip-hop adaptation and “social justice reimagining” of Handel’s “Messiah.”

So how did DNAWORKS end up based not only in New York and Fort Worth, Texas, but also in Pittsburgh?

Company co-founders Banks and Adam W. McKinney most recently lived in Fort Worth. Early this year, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre hired McKinney as its artistic director (making him the first person of color to ever hold that job). At that point, McKinney left DNAWORKS, but Banks — who had already done some remote work here, with Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama — followed him to Pittsburgh, moving here full-time in August. (He also now teaches at CMU.)

And in July, the group hired its first-ever executive director: Andrés Franco, the Pittsburgh-based former executive director at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.

What will DNAWORKS bring to town? Franco said the group is talking with other local groups and venues about taking “The Real James Bond” on tour here. And he said it’s a possibility that Pittsburgh will host future artist residencies for the devising of new works.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: