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Campus for the City

Girard College awarded project grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage

“Be Holding” project explores the beauty of Black flight through the lens of historic Dr. J shot

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (the Center) recently announced Girard College’s “Be Holding” project as one of 29 project grants for 2020 in support of Philadelphia’s cultural organizations and artists. The project grant is for $257,100 with an additional 20% ($51,420) provided in unrestricted general operating support. Girard College is a first-time applicant and recipient of a Center grant.

“Be Holding” is an original performance that will have its world premiere at Girard College, the historic boarding school for at-risk children endowed by Stephen Girard. Using poet Ross Gay’s book-length poem “Be Holding”—inspired by Philadelphia basketball champion Julius Erving (a.k.a. “Dr. J”)—as its libretto, a musical performance will incorporate a creative process that engages Girard College’s first-through-twelfth-grade students.

The commission will explore themes of Black genius and beauty in the face of racial violence and inequities. The school will host Gay, composer Tyshawn Sorey, director Brooke O’Harra, and musical ensemble Yarn/Wire in a multi-year residency to develop the multidisciplinary performance work.

Be Holding Project Team

The “Be Holding” artistic team includes (from top left): Director Brooke O’Harra, poet Ross Gay, composer Tyshawn Sorey, and ensemble Yarn/Wire.

“We could not be more thrilled to welcome these inspiring artists to our community,” said Dr. Heather Wathington, President of Girard College. “Leveraging the performing arts to contemplate issues of identity, humanity, and racial justice is very much in line with Girard’s mission to teach our students to lead lives of social impact.”

The project has two components: a multi-year residency where the artists meet at Girard and engage with students and faculty in the development process, which will then culminate with a scored live performance in the school’s Armory (gymnasium) featuring Gay’s reading enhanced by original video elements and improvisation.

Professional theater director Brooke O’Harra, who currently teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, is excited by the educational opportunities inherent in this project.

“All of us involved in the project are teachers as well as artists,” O’Harra says, “and to have the chance to work with the beautiful students at Girard College is central to this project’s meaning.”

Campus for the City

The “Be Holding” project exemplifies Girard College’s new strategic initiative to be a Campus for the City. By partnering with artists, non-profits, and businesses throughout Philadelphia, the College breaks down boundaries that have long been symbolized by the stone wall surrounding the school’s North Philadelphia campus.

“Girard College is committed to serving as a collaborative partner for the city’s many diverse organizations,” says Sylvia Bastani, Vice President of Advancement and Strategic Partnerships. “Our students benefit when we welcome new audiences to our historic campus and showcase our unique place in the story of Philadelphia.”

Girard College Choir

The students of Girard College will collaborate on the “Be Holding” project as writers and performers.

This is not the first time Girard students will work with professional artists. In 2018, the school partnered with the Curtis Institute to develop and perform the children’s opera “Anansi and the Great Light,” based on the African folktale. And in 2019, the school’s Chapel transformed into a film installation of “Back and Song,” a meditation on the Black experience within Western medical history, created by filmmakers Elissa Blount Moorhead and Bradford Young and produced by Philadelphia Contemporary and Thomas Jefferson University.

“Be Holding” is scheduled to begin with an artist residency in the spring of 2021, pending ongoing developments with the coronavirus pandemic. The premiere performance is scheduled for spring 2023.

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