'Be Holding,' at Girard College, is a collaborative nod to Black genius on the court, and in the culture
The move is iconic — not just for Philadelphia 76ers fans, not even just for hoops fans. Julius Erving’s gravity-defying reverse layup in Game 4 of the 1980 NBA Finals stands as nothing less than a moment of cultural transcendence. At least, that’s the underlying message of Be Holding, a book-length poem by Ross Gay, which won a clutch of awards after its publication in 2020.
Now the poem — and with it, Dr. J’s triumph — is about to assume yet another dimension, as the central text of an ambitious interdisciplinary work. Also titled Be Holding, it was commissioned and produced by Girard College in North Philadelphia, where it will be performed several times in the coming month. This site-specific piece — staged from center court in the school’s gymnasium, known as the Armory — features new music by MacArthur Fellow and Penn professor Tyshawn Sorey, for the chamber quartet Yarn/Wire and select high school students from Girard.
Gay’s text will be performed by Yolanda Wisher, a former poet laureate of Philadelphia, and David Gaines, who recently served as poet laureate of Montgomery County. The production also features a video installation designed by Catching on Thieves and Matt Deinhart; lighting by Itohan Edoloyi; and sound design by Eugene Lew.
The director of Be Holding is Brooke O’Harra, a Doris Duke Impact Award winner on faculty in the Creative Writing program at the University of Pennsylvania. “Be Holding is an experience,” she says in a statement. “You’re invited into this space, this gym, with this poem, with these people, these artists. You’re invited into the conversation, and you’re asked to live in the poem with us.”
Gay, who grew up in Levittown, Pa., has also been actively involved in the development of the work. “Collaboration is one of the questions of this poem — How do we be holding each other? How do we be beholden to one another? — but it’s also one of the things that feels so important about this project, that it is collaborative in nature,” he reflects. “Brooke and I have been collaborating in various ways for more than 25 years, and it’s been amazing to watch this performance take shape and see the Girard students be involved with it. Everyone is just so brilliant in the work they’ve done. It's been a beautiful experience and I feel really lucky to be a part of it.”
Be Holding was created with major support from thePew Center for Arts & Heritage, and in partnership with CDS Creative Productions. The piece also received resources from The MAP Fund, which is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Howard Gilman Foundation, and Mellon Foundation. Performances will be held from May 31 through June 3, at the Girard College Armory at 2010 S. College Avenue in North Philadelphia. To learn more and buy tickets, visit beholding.org.