Poetry on breathing, basketball, and spectacle

Ross Gay and Girard College present Be Holding

4 minute read
A wide shot revealing the whole Armory, lights on the court, dim everywhere else, all players on stage.
Ross Gay’s ‘Be Holding’ takes over Girard College’s Armory gym. (Photo by Ryan Collerd.)

Poet Ross Gay says that “poems are profoundly bodily” in an interview with the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. He performed his profoundly bodily libretto poem Be Holding at historic Girard College in a three-day run (May 31-June 2, 2023) that I wish had been longer. I wanted to pick it apart verse by verse, just like Gay’s meticulous analyses of every grainy frame of YouTube footage of “the Lay-Up” by Philadelphia Sixers legend Julius Irving—affectionately known as Dr. J—in the 1980 NBA Finals. I especially embraced the provocative, fleeting stanzas that linked one of the most iconic plays in basketball history with one of America’s most disturbing “famous” photographs, Fire on Marlborough Street, all with Gay gently reminding the audience to breathe.

A body of work

Be Holding is an original performance created by Gay, with the help of composer Tyshawn Sorey, new music ensemble Yarn/Wire, and director Brooke O’Harra. Staged center court at the Girard College Armory gym, Yarn/Wire’s percussionists rolled thunder with drums and sparked magic with chimes and hi hats, alongside pianos keying distortion of our expectations of the narrative with staggering, stirring chords. Projections spilled from their designated screens onto the whole of the court, free. Former Philly Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher was part of the performance, lending her resounding voice as not just an echo but a reassuring mirror to Gay’s unrelenting but even pace and message. A few Girard College students subtly amplified the poetry, too, embellishing a youthful curiosity that is at the heart of the poem (though they did seem a little nervous, but how could they not be?).

Every frame a spectacle

Early in the poem, Gay reflects on a particular night where he found himself obsessing over the details of “the Lay-Up” by Dr. J. After spending hours picking apart each frame, contemplating its contextual absurdity, the implausible physical maneuverability, and the split-second evasion of what could have been a serious injury, what he lands on is a question I had no answer for: have you ever made a decision while in the air? That’s where the thread starts to crystallize, seamlessly weaving into the Fire on Marlborough Street photograph, captured just a few years before Dr. J’s iconic scoop.

Here, I remind you to breathe.

Gay on stage in a vintage Sixers jumpsuit, percussion behind him, a projection of the book cover, and Wisher to the right
Ross Gay performs ‘Be Holding’ during a rehearsal. (Photo by Ryan Collerd.)

In July 1975, 19-year-old Diana Bryant and her two-year-old goddaughter Tiare Jones fell from a collapsed fire escape of a burning apartment building on Marlborough Street in Boston. Their home was on the fifth floor, approximately 50 feet from the ground. A tillerman was able to reach them, but the fire escape collapsed and he was unable to save them. Jones, the toddler, survived because she landed on Bryant, who softened her fall. But Bryant sustained significant injuries and died hours later. The photographer, Stanley Forman of the Boston Herald, captured the event on his camera and won a Pulitzer Prize for it in 1976. The photograph was also named World Press Photo of the Year.

The media “was charged with invading the privacy of Diana Bryant and pandering to sensationalism” and the city of Boston ultimately revised its fire-escape safety laws. However, the photograph and its response illuminated a devastating truth that’s still evident today.

Grace in the air

Once again, Black bodies become spectacles, and Gay contemplates this intimately throughout the poem. No matter if it’s miraculous plays on the basketball court, or a building fire that cost the life of a young Black woman, it’s something that can’t be unseen. He laments the title of the photograph because it favors property over human life, touting a morbidly voyeuristic perspective. This sort of discourse isn’t uncommon in America, especially when it comes to Black and Brown lives.

I don’t know that I’ve ever made a decision while in the air. I’m not sure what sort of thoughts, memories, or truths arise in such swift, dire—if not fatal—circumstances. Gay’s performance and the supporting players were riveting and reaffirming, if not unnerving, at the root of this inquiry. Now I have some clarity about my own frequent habit of revisiting basketball highlights from greats like Dr. J, Allen Iverson, or Kobe. Their grace in the air is more than just a spectacle, but perhaps a defense mechanism and a reminder of the beauty of the Black body and how imperative it is to both protect it and to set it free in a place where it can be safe, where it can play, where it can live, and where it can breathe.

While the performance’s run has wrapped, you can experience Be Holding in book form.

What, When, Where

Be Holding. By Ross Gay, directed by Brooke O’Harra. $35. May 31 through June 3, 2023, at the Armory at Girard College, 2101 S College Avenue, Philadelphia. beholding.org.

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