ABOVE PHOTO: ‘Be Holding’ is staged at the court in the Girard College Armory (Photo by Ryan Collerd)
By Constance Garcia-Barrio
Into this season that finds so many Black families grieving comes the production of Ross Gay’s book-length poem, “Be Holding,” like shimmering hope.
Staged in the huge gymnasium/armory at Girard College — “It’s a cool performance space,” Gay said — this world premiere and operatic performance invites the audience to find joy in their lives by caring for each other in the midst of tragedy.
“Be Holding”, which runs through June 3, gives Philadelphians a rare opportunity for collective healing.
“We’ve developed the show over two-and-a-half years,” said director Brooke O’Harra, a professional theatre director, artist, and faculty member in the University of Pennsylvania Theatre Arts Department. “This show will tour around the world for a couple of years.”
Gay has Philly roots — including lots of local playground basketball and a Ph.D. from Temple — but his work has also earned national acclaim. In 2015, he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” one of his four published poetry collections, and in 2019, “The Book of Delights,” a book of essays, was a New York Times bestseller.
“Be Holding,” published in 2020, won the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award.
The script of “Be Holding” consists of the text of the poem. In the opening moment, Dr. J., a.k.a. Julius Erving, a member of the Philadelphia 76ers from 1976 to 1987 and considered one of the NBA’s greatest players of all time, soars in game 4 of the 1980 NBA Finals between the Sixers and the LA Lakers to make a basket:
and so Doc leapt,
he left his feet
which means more or less jumping with the ball
with nowhere to go, and which
we’re warned against by coaches from day one (p.7)
“I grew up in the Philly area,” said Gay, who reminds the audience of Black genius and joy throughout the text. “I was a real fan of the Sixers. My dad would have been watching that game if he could. It’s a moment of profound, beautiful improvisation, of genius.” The poem, at the outset, is sown with the names and stats of other stellar players:
Kareem, one of the best defenders of all time
5 time NBA All-Defensive first team
6 time NBA All-Defensive second team (p. 11)
Gay includes a scene where Black joy collides with white neighbors’ protests:
on the court at 10th and Lombard
where those in the know
would slide through a gap
in the grimace of the wrought iron gate
to get in, a court that would be in time
shut down in the most heinous
of ways—removing the rims—
the backboards as lonely as gravestones—
because of complaints to the city
from condo owners
across the street
who did not want to hear god forbid
all that Negro gathering
and celebration and care and delight (p. 15)
“Be Holding” ranges from Dr. J’s exquisite game to family reminiscences to horror and back. For example, the poem considers the shot photographer Stanley Forman took of a 19-year-old Black woman and her two-year-old niece falling five flights from a collapsed fire escape to the street. The woman died, but Forman got the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for 1975 and later made the picture of the woman plunging to her death the central image on the cover of his book “Before Yellow Tape,” which documents fires:
for he was simply
doing his job
adding his small work
to the museum
of black pain
Such moments of tragedy can deepen Black people’s capacity to care for each other, Gay believes.
“I’m interested in our capacity for tenderness, our capacity for love,” he said. “I think the poem revels in how we care for one another, noticing and celebrating how we care for one another. We’re talking about how we regard each other, how we don’t turn away from each other’s devastation.”
“Be Holding” ends as Dr. J, after impossible moves, sends the ball sailing through the net in a reverse layup.
Two Philadelphia poets—Yolanda Wisher and David Gaines—will read the poem during the performance, their voices and movements braiding the elements of the staging, which includes video projections, while the audience can follow the words on screens set around the gym.
Yolanda Wisher — educator and spoken word artist, chosen as Philadelphia’s third poet laureate in 2016 — has more than a passing acquaintance with hoops.
“I’m a basketball player,” said Wisher, who, in her freshman year at Lafayette College seemed on track for a career in the sport. At Lafayette, she met Gay, a few years ahead of her.
“My mom and dad met at Millersville playing basketball,” she said. “When I stopped playing it was a huge disappointment for [my mother].” Wisher, the author of “Monk Eats His Afro,” also has a band — Yolanda Wisher & The Afroeaters.
The chance to work on “Be Holding” came at just the right time for poet, actor, and filmmaker David Gaines.
“This production came at a point when I was becoming nihilistic,” said Gaines, who has a film in the Black Star Film Festival in August. “There are so many grieving Black families. Joy felt kind of naïve. Joy felt kind of immature. Joy for Black people is a radical act. It’s given me options. I can choose joy. I can choose to see things as other than a hellscape.”
Tyshawn Sorey, current presidential assistant professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania and composer-in-residence at Opera Philadelphia, was the composer for “Be Holding.” Sorey received a MacArthur genius grant in 2017. The performance also features music from Yarn/Wire, a quartet that includes women, LGBTQIA performers, and musicians of color.
“We’re actively curious and in love with music,” their website states.
Eight Girard College students, Stephan Philemon among them, have also had a hand in the production.
“I’ve been working on the show since November of 2022,” Philemon said. “I’m a performing artist. I’ve played piano at the Kimmel Center and on Temple’s campus. I plan to major in music theory, education, and biology.”
The production’s final version holds a mystery for even Gay.
“By the time I get there for the performance, it will be as new to me as it is to you,” he said. “It’s a kind of translation with music and other media. I don’t know what the piece as a whole is going to be.”
Wisher hopes that “Be Holding” offers a pathway inward, “I want the audience to have the experience of going deep,” she said. “This could be a soul-opening experience.”
Public performances will take place from June 1 through June 3, at Girard College, located at 2101 S. College Avenue. All performances start at 7:30 p.m. Please visit: https://www.beholding.org/tickets or call: (215) 787-2600 for more information.