DETROIT — Saturday, May 28 was a staggeringly hot day out along 8 Mile Road, where, just before three in the afternoon, a somewhat anomalous crowd of people began to gather. This stretch of road is a place people rarely visit without some purpose — getting an oil change, perhaps, or hitting up one of the many dispensaries that have sprung up in the short time since Michigan legalized medical marijuana — let alone a place where you see people congregate. Just a handful in front of the Fast Lane car wash and lube on the Ferndale side — Detroit’s closest northern suburb, divided from the city by eight lanes of traffic — and a somewhat larger crowd on the Detroit side. Both groups seemed gathered without much apparent purpose. Attention seemed to be focused on the wide, grassy median, dividing east- and west-bound traffic on 8 Mile, planted here and there with trees. One such tree, just east of the Mitchelldale intersection, had some unusually bright red objects cast about its foot. Just adjacent to that, a blue wrestling mat was barely visible in the grass. Otherwise, there was nothing to indicate anything out of the ordinary was about to take place.
However, this set of visitors was present to witness an event of great cosmic significance: performance artist and poet Billy Mark in his role as The Wrestler. Some 45 days previous, Mark announced his intention to face “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Mark draws his language directly from the Bible’s Ephesians 6:12: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Siting the match along 8 Mile was no arbitrary act; this road forms the official northern border of Detroit, and during the many decades of siege-like relations between the city proper and the surrounding Metro area, it was heavily policed to prevent any sort of interplay between the mostly black Detroit population and the mostly white suburbs. Mark is not native to Detroit, but his time here has put him in touch with the residual racial tension, which remains an understandably raw nerve, especially as demographics of the city begin to shift again.
“One afternoon I experienced a deep sense of cultural division pervading a room full of people,” said Mark, in a follow-up interview via email. “I didn’t say much in the moment, but it stayed with me in my guts and I was frustrated by my lack of vocabulary to access this sense of division.” He set about to construct a kind of spiritual wrestling match in pursuit of healing this division, despite his only direct experience with wrestling limited to a few weeks of practice in 8th grade.
To prepare for his somewhat ambiguous but daunting task, Mark enlisted the aid of a diverse group of trainers. Edwin Geronimo was in charge of training the Wrestler’s mind; Matthew Hale, his body; Yvette Rock, his spirit (soul); and Sacha Geronimo, the strengthening of his heart. Their work was multifaceted, including an open call for training partners, and sessions that ranged from physical grappling, endurance exercises, guided prayer, and confronting fissures in Mark’s own consciousness that might leave him vulnerable in this spiritual match-up.
“His opponent was division,” said heart trainer Sacha Geronimo. “And so we had to look at areas in his life where there was division — especially when it comes to issues that he might have had with race, growing up. We said a healing prayer, asked the Lord to take him back to places where those hurts and wounds and take place, and ask him to bring healing.” Geronino leads a few groups on racial reconciliation and characterizes herself as a strong believer in healing prayer.
Mark identifies as Christian, and has this to say on the topic of religion:
Religion, for me, is like an art form or an art practice that guides my spiritual creativity to an mysterious and substantial end. ‘Experimental’ work is a very faith-based practice in my experience. In experimental work as in faith, I set out in a direction and am willing to embrace my ridiculousness and question my own methods on the way in hopes of a deeper and more revelatory experience.
The performance, which took place from precisely 3:02–3:26 pm, was comprised of several rounds, indicated by the sounding of an air horn. Mark, clad in a black wrestling singlet, gold sneakers, and white headgear came up the median at a slow jog, dragging a jump rope behind him. The first round comprised of negotiations with the rope, which was variously dragged by Mark in a series of precise gestures, or animated to appear somewhat like Mark was grappling with a snake. Having successfully navigated the first round, Mark moved onto the second, which involved three unbroken minutes of jump rope. At this point the crowd, which had been mostly silent, broke into cheers of encouragement — even the effort of clapping was somewhat taxing in the oppressive humidity, let alone the concept of rigorous physical exercise.
“A lot of it was about what a match is like, how to prepare for a match,” said Hale, a former wrestler and Mark’s body trainer. “The jumping rope that came into it — that was one of the main training things we did, just for endurance. Until this week, he had never done more than two minutes in a row, and he just did three three-minute sets in the 80-degree heat.”
Mark alternated these jump rope sets with grappling exercises, including an elaborate process of hanging red flags on the tree that sheltered his match, in some cases jumping into the air to access higher branches, and donning a heavy, red woolen cap with four long dreadlock-esque tentacles trailing all the way to the ground while wrestling around a cellophane barrier held in place by Hale and Edwin Geronimo. On either side of the barrier were pots of pink painting, and amid dodges and feints, rolls and peel-offs, Mark began to leave handfuls of pink paint on the barrier. The need for improvisation was paramount, as the wind moving the barrier threw a wrench in Mark’s careful training.
“These are just the trials that we go through,” said Edwin Geronimo. “It’s evident that’s it spiritual. But God won — God always wins.”
With each turn, it seemed that Mark had laid down a further trial for himself — toward the end of the match, Hale and Edwin Geronimo wrapped Mark from the shoulders-down in the length of industrial cellophane, forming a kind of cocoon. He was visibly exhausted at this point, and the crowd redoubled their efforts to verbally support his efforts.
“I came up with a 40-day training guide to wrestling spiritual forces of wickedness and evil in the heavenly realms,” said spirit trainer Yvette Rock, “and so, I went up to day 35, and then I’ll do the 5 days after the match.” Rock has spent the last 12 years researching and doing work on a project “10 Plagues of Detroit,” so she was a natural fit with Mark’s spiritual exploration. “It’s important to think about why certain places are the way they are, or people — looking at 8 Mile, and knowing that a place doesn’t just become a place by accident. There’s a lot of things that affect the condition of a place.”
There was a great deal of tension to Mark’s performance — not simply the reflexive sympathy of watching a human go through a trial, but some legitimate concerns about aspects of the environment beyond anyone’s control. Twice during the performance, Mark’s median was buzzed by a police cruiser; I contemplated what capacity I possessed to intervene if the police decided to interfere with him. Watching Mark break through his cellophane bindings was energizing and triumphant; I was not the only one concerned that he might give up.
“It was tough out there on the median,” said Mark. “I have never pushed my body that far in this process before. There were definitely times that I wanted to stop. It wasn’t pretty, but it felt simultaneously painful and sweet.”
“I consider my life very, very, cushy,” he continued, “I have my struggles, and I often feel for other people’s struggles, but this notion of our struggle was foreign to me. How do we access our struggle. What type of responsibility, what time of union is our struggle? It’s pretty mystical. When I am pushed to the limits of my hope and faith and trust, I enter into a very human experience.”
The match concluded and the crowd went wild. Mark acknowledged his victory with a raised hand, before continuing his jog down the 8 Mile median, disappearing into the distance. While the forces of wickedness are difficult to master — especially regarding Detroit’s painful history that has left people on both sides of the 8 Mile divide with psychic wounds — it seemed undeniable among trainers and spectators of the match that goodness had prevailed, at least for this day.
Billy Mark’s “Wrestle” took place at 8 Mile and Mitchelldale (Detroit) on May 28.