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Campus for the City

Be Holding, An Original Performance Exploring Black Genius, Justice, And Joy, Takes Center Court

High School Students have worked with nationally recognized artists, including Poet Ross Gay, Composer Tyshawn Sorey, New Music Ensemble Yarn/Wire, and Director Brooke O’Harra for two years on new show

Be Holding graphic

From May 31 to June 3, Girard College will open its doors to the public for the World Premiere of Be Holding, an original performance created by celebrated, boundary-pushing artists in collaboration with students at the historic North Philadelphia school.

Based on Ross Gay’s award-winning poem of the same name, the performance meditates on America’s history of racial violence in search of Black genius, justice, and joy.

Commissioned and produced by Girard College, with support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and in partnership with CDS Creative Productions, Be Holding was created collaboratively by some of the most creative artists in America today:

Photos of Be Holding Artists

  • Ross Gay is a New York Times bestselling poet and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award whose work considers the joy we create when we care for one another.
  • Composer Tyshawn Sorey is a MacArthur Fellow, Composer in Residence at Opera Philadelphia, and a University of Pennsylvania professor
  • Musical ensemble Yarn/Wire is a quartet (pianists Laura Barger and Julia Den Boer and percussionists Russell Greenberg and Sae Hashimoto) dedicated to the promotion of creative, experimental new music and has been called “mesmerizing” by the New York Times
  • Director Brooke O’Harra is a director, artist and performer who co-founded the Obie Award winning Theater of a Two-headed Calf and is a University of Pennsylvania professor

Why Girard College?

Girard College, is a 175-year-old tuition-free boarding school for underserved youth that was at the center of Philadelphia’s civil rights movement. Be Holding opens the school’s historic campus to the city and fosters conversation on social justice issues that continue to impact its majority Black population today.

The project represents an important step in Girard’s “Campus for the City” strategic initiative, which seeks to activate resources that engage diverse communities throughout Philadelphia and lead conversations on issues of educational equity and social justice, particularly through the arts. By partnering with artists, non-profits, and businesses throughout Philadelphia, the College is working to break down boundaries that have long been symbolized by the stone wall surrounding the school’s North Philadelphia campus.

Campus for the City logo

“As Girard College marks its 175th anniversary, we are committed to engaging the community as a Campus for the City, facilitating important conversations and sharing our resources and history,” says Sylvia Bastani, Chief Advancement Officer at Girard College. “Be Holding has been a true collaboration between our students and the team of professional artists, and this project presents a major opportunity for the public to visit our campus and be wowed by a world-class performance with a powerful message.”

Since 2021, the artists have engaged in week-long residencies at Girard each fall and spring; collaborating with students and faculty in the production’s development process, studying the themes of the work, and exploring how these artistic disciplines interact. The fifth and final residency begins May 17 and culminates with the world premiere performances. Eight Girard high school students are working both on and off the stage, taking full advantage of the unique opportunity to learn from this talented team.

The Cast and Crew of 'Be Holding'

The Production

Be Holding is a world-premiere performance from nationally recognized artists in music, poetry, and theater. It transforms Ross Gay’s award-winning poem of the same name into a multidisciplinary, site-specific experience that combines poetry, music, choreography, and video.

Gay’s book-length 2020 poem — winner of the 2021 PEN/Jean Stein Award, 2021 Ohioana Book Award in Poetry, and 2022 Indiana Author Award in Poetry — was inspired by a seemingly impossible midair shot, the baseline scoop, by legendary Philadelphia 76ers basketball player Julius Erving — aka Dr. J— in the 1980 NBA Finals.

The poem connects Dr. J’s iconic move to pick-up basketball and the flying Igbo and the Middle Passage, to photography and surveillance and state violence, to music and personal histories of flight and familial love. Be Holding, the performance, uses the exchange of words, sounds and movements, and the shared presence of performers and witnesses to create an atmosphere of collective discovery and potential.

Photo of Yolanda Wisher and David Gaines
Yolanda Wisher and David Gaines perform the text of ‘Be Holding’


In this original production, Gay’s poem is scored and conducted by Tyshawn Sorey for improvisation by the musical ensemble Yarn/Wire. The text is performed by two poets laureate, Yolanda Wisher (Philadelphia) and David Gaines (Montgomery County), and the show is accompanied by a three-channel video installation, designed by Catching on Thieves and Matt Deinhart. Lighting is by Itohan Edoloyi and sound design by Eugene Lew. It has been produced by Girard College in collaboration with CDS Creative Productions.

Be Holding will be staged from center court in the school’s historic gymnasium (called the Armory), which seats 400 on its bleachers. The performance, which begins at dusk, is timed to take advantage of the natural light in the gym, part of creating an immersive, sensory experience.

“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,” says Gay. “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 is an experience. You’re invited into this space, this gym, with this poem, with these people, these artists,” says director Brooke O’Harra. “You’re invited into the conversation, and you’re asked to live in the poem with us.”


May 31 at 7:30 p.m.

June 1 at 7:30 p.m.

June 2 at 7:30 p.m.

June 3 at 7:30 p.m.

All held in the Girard College Armory at 2101 S College Ave in Philadelphia.

Learn more and purchase tickets:

Major support for Be Holding has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from The MAP Fund, which is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Howard Gilman Foundation, and Mellon Foundation.

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