Timothy DuWhite's Play, 'Neptune,' Takes You on a Journey of Being Black, HIV-Positive, and Battling for a Space to Be Loved

Senior Editor
Timothy DuWhite
David Friend

Timothy DuWhite's work could easily be described by the term I associate with beat poets and Black Panthers: heavy. His work deals with the difficult shit from anti-black racism, HIV, and state violence. But if you've spent any time with him, you'd know it's not all doom and gloom -- DuWhite is also really funny, and his laughter alone can fill a space. That heaviness and hilarity are both present in his solo stage show, Neptune, which premiered this summer at New York City's Dixon Place. He's producing the show again at the Brooklyn Museum on January 5, 2019. I got a chance to talk with Timothy about developing Neptune, the new black queer writing renaissance, and putting the state back in the HIV movement.

Kenyon Farrow: I remember seeing Neptune at Dixon Place this summer, and I wanted to talk about the show, now that you have another iteration of it coming up. I would love to hear about how the idea of Neptune started, what was the germinating idea for it, and how you developed that into the show that you have.

Timothy DuWhite: So, the original idea for Neptune basically came from the idea of feeling hard to love. Originally Neptune was actually just going to be a poem. I wanted to write a poem that was going to be dedicated to myself and all the different people in my life, and kind of circle around this idea of them being too difficult, or having too much trauma, or having just -- just being too much, in whatever various, different ways, for people to be able to properly love them.

I got the opportunity to do the one-man show because of Dixon Place: Basically, one of the head people there saw me reading at an event they had, and then asked me if I was doing anything larger. And at that point, at that time, I wasn't. But I also know not to say no to stuff like that. So I was like, "Oh, absolutely."

The idea of the word, of Neptune in particular, is, during that time, when I was having these heavy thoughts (and I still do), I was trying to also reconnect with my father. Because my father's been present, as in around in my life, the majority of my life; but just emotionally, and it just seemed like even intellectually, we never connected that much, for various reasons. Some of those reasons were the different stuff he'd been through as a child that forced him to feel unlovable, as well.

So, a big eureka moment for me was that I never knew where my father was born or grew up. I never knew it my entire life.

And then he told me, "Oh, I'm actually from Neptune."

And I was like, "Wow. This whole time, I never knew that you were from somewhere so close as Neptune, New Jersey."

So that's where the name originally came from. And also, I knew that I wanted this play to feel kind of intergalactic; so Neptune just worked in so many different ways.

KF: One of the things that I remember being struck by when I saw it was both this idea of feeling unlovable -- and how just being a black body in public space can obviously exacerbate those feelings of how people respond to you. And so I'm curious to know how you went from that idea of being unlovable -- and potentially also connecting this idea, connecting to your father -- took you to this place where you sort of set the show in the subway and kind of use that to drive the idea home about being unlovable. And the kind of trauma and mental health stuff it creates became a big piece of that.

TDW: I was originally focusing on interpersonal, as far as romantic, relationships. Because that's where it felt most pertinent to me. I was feeling most hard to love in relation to, "Oh, this boy is not treating me right," or, "Oh, this boy is not treating my friends right," or, "Their partner is treating them badly." We always have these issues.

But as I thought about it more, this idea of being hard to love, it's not just in super-close, personal dynamics; it's also global. So, being hard to love is also an extension of the state, of being in my body, black, queer, HIV positive. I'm inherently harder to love in a system that says that these different characteristics are, in itself, unlovable.

I wanted to place the play in a train station because that's where so much of life -- I mean, particularly in New York -- so much life happens in trains, and so much of our lives is spent going through trains, transporting in trains with a bunch of strangers.

Even the first scene, where the character Wayne is recalling a situation where he laughs to himself on the train, and then everyone is put off by that. I thought about that idea by just being on a train and seeing this young girl; I think she was looking at something on her phone. She started, like, really cracking up, right?

At first, I started laughing with her. She was laughing so hard, it became contagious. But then I saw a few women's and men's faces around her, looking kind of disturbed or annoyed. And I was imagining, what would it have been like if she didn't even have the crutch of the phone in her hand to show that this is what she's laughing at? What if she just decided to fucking laugh? Why is that so bad? Then probably I would have even more to think about.

That kind of moment, that small moment, is what I kind of sit with and think about, when I think about being too difficult in this world. Like, even just moments of joy that you have are always up for scrutiny. Even me thinking about, like, "Oh. She has a phone in her hand; that's why she's laughing." So, even me, sitting there, had to come up with a story, just working for her to be acting that way.

But in reality, she didn't need it. She didn't need any type of allowance from any of us to just be.

So, yeah. That's kind of where the idea of the train came from. It was just from that one scene I saw. And then I just decided to shape the entire play from that vantage point.

Timothy DuWhite
Timothy DuWhite
David Friend

KF: We're in an interesting moment where there's just lots of black queer -- particularly black queer men in the case of work being produced, and stories being told in theater, in film and television. I'm interested in how you see your work in this larger moment, which is an opening of a space for more black queer stories to be told in performing arts.

TDW: Right. I've heard a lot of folks who refer to the particular time we're in as a modern-day Harlem Renaissance, or ascendance to that sort of degree, which -- I do agree. I feel like right now, not so much that right now black queer folks are just making amazing, radical work; because that's been happening forever. But I think that now folks are just getting pedestals and opportunities that have never existed, haven't happened before; and it's just so exciting.

I think the more folks -- in particular, black queer folks -- are getting these opportunities, the more the rest of us, as artists, feel the need to contribute to this time, as well.

And that's kind of what I feel like with Neptune. Just meeting people like -- there's so many names -- Tarell Alvin McCraney, with Moonlight, or Donja Love, or all these different people creating this work. I want to be able to say that during this time I also contributed some work for this time, you know?

KF: Another thing I see that is interesting to me, and perhaps different, is that there has not to me been such a number of black queer men who either are HIV positive, or who are at least willing to sort of talk about the specter of HIV as it relates to their lives, and communities, and friendships, and lovers, and what have you. If I had to trace black gay cultural production in the span of the last 35 years -- I mean, in the early work of Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, and Joseph Beam, Marlon was kind of an exception, in that he actually describes himself as being HIV positive, where some of the other folks around that period may have talked about HIV in their work but never really, sort of, publicly disclosed in that way. I think that that kind of dance has carried until very recently.

I think with you, Donja, Danez [Smith], a couple of other folks, it's not like, "Oh, this is the HIV play." It's just that it's actually a fact of life, right? For so many black queer men -- whether they're positive or not -- just in terms of either ourselves, or just partners, or friendships, or whatever. It's there.

I'm also interested in hearing you talk about how you choose to talk about HIV, with your own status, and in your own work.

TDW: Right. I've been through so many different variations of how to discuss HIV, which I think most people who contract the disease do. I turned off, when I was younger -- well, not younger; but, rather, early on in my diagnosis -- not speaking about it. Right? And then I go into being shamed. And then I go into feeling the need to tell everybody my full contraction story. Like, everyone needs to know how I got it so that they will not follow down my terrible path. You know? I went through that.

And now I've reached a place where I want to talk; I talk about HIV in a way that it's inextricable from black. And I try in everything I do to make the connection between HIV and blackness kind of blurred. But in many ways, I feel like my HIV has kind of deepened my blackness. And the reason I say that is because just the same way that -- you know, I'll say early on in the history of the disease, but also, this is also a modern-day thing, too -- many folks used to be afraid to touch people who were HIV positive, afraid to drink after them, afraid of anything that had to do respecting HIV; like, quarantine them, keep them away. Just as, back in the day, say, a black person put their foot in, their toe in, a pool. Right? They're like draining the whole pool. They're terrified. You know? This idea of being afraid to touch in a way that they're scared of.

I think the history of HIV and black people are similar in that way. And that's just one connection that I've been kind of sitting with. In many different ways, the ways in which I have to navigate -- like, even being afraid of my body feels inherently black. And I feel like I had that fear even before being HIV positive. But then it was kind of doubled-down on, when I became HIV positive.

So, yeah. All I can say is, whenever I'm talking about being HIV positive, I'm also talking about being black. And I've been trying, really, to make a sort of effort to do that. I also try that really hard within my play Neptune, as well.

Another thing I talk about is the state. So every time, just about every time, you hear me speak about HIV, I find a way to put the state in there somehow. One reason I do that is because I think that's the only way to have the impact of advocacy around HIV, is for us to keep the state complicit in our conversations.

Another way is understanding that the advocacy against the disease started off as a petition to the state. Like, these white queers in ACT UP, or all these white queers early on, in the '80s, who were fighting against HIV, were explicitly fighting against the state. They hated Ronald Reagan. They would go to steps of the White House. It was explicit: Like, fuck the state! You know?

But now, when I guess times have changed, medication has been acquired, certain white queers that were feeling so destitute before no longer feel destitute because they have PrEP; they have reduced viral loads [if they're living with HIV]. They feel more cared for than they did before. Let a black queer HIV-positive person say anything about the state, and they're instantly switched into, "Well, what were you doing [to contract HIV]?" It becomes more of a, black people always crying wolf, or, like, crying [it's the white man's fault].

Where, before, it was all about the state.

KF: Yeah. And it's become a personal responsibility frame in America. Right? I hear you saying part of your total journey, and during the diagnosis, there was a period in your life where you kind of wanted to expose to everybody and talk about how you contracted HIV.

Right now particularly a lot of young black gay men who come into the advocacy side, or they work in community-based organizations -- there's this kind of pull for them to be legitimated by basically becoming a cautionary tale. Right? The story becomes, like, "Oh, don't follow in my footsteps." But you did nothing different than anybody else. We all fuck the same way.

The state is implicated, in terms of the disparity in diagnoses that we have. But many young advocates and service providers are not encouraged to actually pursue that route of political analysis, or inquiry, or vision.

So, when people come to see Neptune this coming January at the Brooklyn Museum, what is it that you want people to walk away with?

TDW: First and foremost, what I want people to walk away with is, they have fun. The show has heavy topics. And this isn't a surprise, because you hear black, queer, HIV-positive young person and you think, "Oh; this is going to be like the Titanic," you know? Or something really sad.

KF: Right. A black, queer Philadelphia or something.

TDW: Right. It's not just Philadelphia, but yeah. And then you see the show, and that's like, "Oh, shit. He's laughing at that part. And, oh, I'm laughing at that part. This is sad." And there's a whole scene with, like, this n***a from Popeyes. You know? And it's a whole bunch of things that are also parts of my life that, it's not just rooted in sadness. Because that's not the reality of anyone's life. You understand? Even the most marginalized -- their entire life isn't that one margin.

Another thing I want people to leave with is, I kind of pose a question in the play of -- just see how I can say this without giving away the actual punchline -- but it's the idea of how we live. I could say this: It's a twofold question of whether or not you should, we should, be working to return to a place that we feel most comfortable, and good and affirmed. Or should we be working towards creating a new place?