“Timothy DuWhite is the patron saint of your ugly cry,” writes poet Rachel McKibben. It’s a quote highlighted on DuWhite’s website, and as far as I am concerned, it is true.
I first met DuWhite in 2014 at an event I co-organized with cultural maven Zachary Frater. It was an intimate round table in which primarily young queer black people and people of color shared stories of resilience. Busy with a previous engagement, DuWhite arrived about ten minutes before we were slated to wrap up, and blew everyone away by performing what was then an early version of “Joy Revisited,” a spoken-word piece that he has since performed for UNICEF and elsewhere.
With measured cadence and a imploring tone, DuWhite pushes back against loved ones pressuring him to villainize not only his HIV status, but also the ex who transmitted the virus to him. “Joy is,” as a line in the poem goes, “admitting that I still love the man that gave me a terminal illness.”
As I’m someone who has been doing work at the intersection of art, AIDS, and activism for awhile, DuWhite brought tears to my eyes, and hope to my heart. It was one of the first times I saw someone from the younger generation approach the epidemic through an intersectional lens in a radically vulnerable way. While he was not denying the burden of HIV, he was rejecting the cultural imperative that suggests he should be making monsters of himself, the virus, and his ex. Instead he was highlighting how what united the three was love, desire, and intimacy. As a young black queer man in the United States, he was not going to reject things that too often he had been denied.
Since then, DuWhite has continued to grow as a writer and performer, performing and giving talks and leading workshops across the United States. This summer, he is making his debut as a playwright with Neptune, which starts a two-week run at Dixon Place on July 13.
In this one-person show, DuWhite plays multiple characters, including Wayne, the play’s protagonist. Wayne is a young black gay man living with HIV, figuring out how to survive and thrive in a world that seems hell-bent on snuffing out his existence. (Wayne, it should be noted, is DuWhite’s middle name.)
The play is rooted in Wayne’s attempt to get to Neptune — not the planet per se, but rather the place we are told Wayne’s father is from, and a utopia for the Hard to Love, otherwise known in the play as HTLs. It is a place Wayne wants to get to because, as he has been told, it is where people like him can begin to feel less harder to love.
As DuWhite explains it to me at his kitchen table in Crown Heights, the concept of being HTL inspires different reactions in people, including for many developing a curiosity about despair, emotional blocks, and sadness. Where do all these feelings come from? Where can they go?
This leads to more questions, and eventually a shift from searching only within himself to looking outward. In the logic of the play, this leads Wayne to start Googling forces that have affected him and his communities, like the war on drugs and police violence.
DuWhite suggests the space is thin between the world of the play and the reality we all inhabit. “I have a line that goes, ‘Prisons are filled to the brim with people who are hard to love,'” he says.
Through his process, Wayne learns what some others have already figured out, that considering yourself HTL — which can lead to feeling as though you have nothing to lose, and a desire for a better world — can be a shield used to become bolder and more radical. It can be a force that allows you to become an organizer, agitator, a speaker of truth to power. It is a feeling that, even if it once blocked you from the inside, can end up helping you make change in the outside world.
In the play, though, eventually the authorities catch on. The police criminalize being hard to love. Snitches rat people out, and officers of the state are on high alert, monitoring those they suspect. After a blowout on a subway, Wayne is identified as being HTL. From there, the play becomes an odyssey, an uncovering of the limits, possibilities, and myths of feeling HTL.
“Timothy is definitely someone those black LGBTQ men and women of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties were waiting for,” says Steven G. Fullwood, a filmmaker, archivist, and cultural worker who is making a short film about DuWhite for Third World Newsreel. Fullwood says DuWhite “is his own creation, for sure,” while also pointing out he “follows in a black gay tradition of poets like Essex Hemphill and Marvin K. White, writers who wrote life-affirming poems that break your heart with their love and specificity and bare-headedness.”
Like those writers, DuWhite understands that the personal is political. For the last three years he has been developing and offering a workshop called “HIV & The State: Coalition Building Beyond the Condom,” which positions the ongoing epidemic less as a crisis of behavior among individuals, as it has often been situated, and rather as a form of state violence rooted in overlapping systemic bias, discriminatory when it comes to race, gender, class, and geography.
As DuWhite understands it, care and prevention should be based less on condoms, and more on addressing the uneven allocation of resources such as education, health care, and the space to believe in a future where your existence is welcome and possible.
The idea of the workshop came to him during the summer that activism was heating up around the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island. DuWhite, who grew up with undiagnosed dyslexia amid many moves thanks to his father’s military career, had recently relocated from New Jersey to Brooklyn. He was spending his days dealing with getting his insurance and medical records transferred from state to state, and his nights with fellow activists. Cries of “I can’t breathe!” echoed in the streets of the city.
At some point, amid the sleep deprivation, riding the waves of hope and despair, within the complexity of community coming together and tearing each other apart, and in the face of byzantine medical and state bureaucracy that was delaying access to his life-saving medication, DuWhite had an epiphany: There was a connection between his personal fight and the work of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Everything changed once I realized what state violence looks like,” recalls DuWhite, looking slightly exhausted now, after months of toggling between his work as the program director at New York Writers Coalition, rehearsing the show, maintaining a full schedule of readings and appearances, plus living his life.
“State violence is not just getting shot,” he says. “I’ve been experiencing the reach of the state’s wickedness the entirety of my life. It is every system that tries to catch and cage me. Once I understood that, I started seeing the world different, and that comes out in the work.”
DuWhite has no delusions about the power of art in creating social change. He understands culture as a venue for justice, and that the work itself is not just the labor of creation, but also the urgency explored within, and how that leads people (himself included) to change, convene, and act.
“Is it confronting the system? Is it threatening business as usual?” he asks. “How do we do this without having to die? I don’t know; I don’t have any answers. But I feel like the closest response I have is continuing to contribute to the conversation in everything I do.”
As I leave DuWhite’s place, walking down Utica toward Eastern Parkway, the second-floor barber shops starting to fill up, I think about how Hard to Love is an interesting moniker. It seemed pessimistic to me at first, but the more I mulled it over, the more optimistic it becomes.
Being hard to love is not the same as being unloved, or unlovable. Rather, as DuWhite knows, it is a feeling embedded with hope, ripe with the awareness that love is not what is up for debate. Rather, the challenge ahead is about improving the conditions for how to accept love.
Written and performed by Timothy DuWhite
Directed by Zhailon Levingston
161A Chrystie Street