Easy to Be Hard

Neptune Makes Provincetown Premiere

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by Steve Desroches

The flowers have arrived. Provincetown Theater artistic director David Drake positions a few pots of red flowers to show where they’ll be once the outdoor stage behind the Bradford Street playhouse is completed in time for the first performance of the 2021 season with Timothy DuWhite’s critically acclaimed Neptune. After being shuttered since March of 2020 it isn’t just any opening night, but an optimistic bloom of artistry as the stages of Provincetown are once again lighting up, one by one. Drake is confident in the season’s offerings, and in particular with Neptune, a semi-autobiographical story about being Black, queer, and HIV-positive today and the imagination of a place where those deemed “too difficult” to assimilate can go to drop the armor needed to survive.

Moving inside to the traditional theater, now a staging area for the outdoor performance space, DuWhite arrives and he and Drake dive right into continued planning about rehearsals, notes, and more. He’s only been in town a few days, his first time ever in Provincetown, presenting Neptune for the first time since pre-pandemic days and also for the first time outside of New York City. Premiering at Dixon Place in New York the summer of 2018 Neptune began as a poem. Coming out of the slam poetry tradition, DuWhite’s reading of his work so impressed the leadership at Dixon Place they asked him if he had anything in the works.

“I didn’t really, but said ‘yes,’” says DuWhite breaking into a wide smile. “I knew it was an opportunity not to pass up. So I said, ‘Yes!’”

Constructing a play from his poetry, with the support of Dixon Place, allowed DuWhite to explore the idea of identity, and the subsequent braces society tries to put on those self-realizations, especially for Black queer people, recognizing the state-sanctioned violence and systemic nature of anti-Black racism and homophobia in government and capitalism. And yet, those on the receiving end are asked to assimilate, to adapt, to adjust, to not make trouble. DuWhite wants Neptune to be a validation of those that mistrust the systems that claim to promise one thing, but deliver another. And what that does to the individual.

“It started out as a meditation on what it means to be hard to love,” says DuWhite. “A lot of the early twenties. I’m so traumatized, too insecure, too hurt, and nobody will love me.”

Described as being as tender and humorous as it is compelling, Neptune is set on a New York City subway where the character Wayne laughs at a memory. That laughter is a mystery to his fellow riders, eventually setting off a volatile outburst on the crowded train followed by a police investigation, leading to Wayne searching for his Neptune, that place in his mind’s eye where someone like him finds love. Described as being in between “Afro-pessimism” and “Afro-futurism,” Neptune is a lyrical exploration of the deeply personal, to be unafraid and unapologetic in loving yourself, even if all your life the forces around you conspire to have you think otherwise.

With a father in the military, DuWhite grew up moving around a lot, though the New York City area is considered home, especially Crown Heights in Brooklyn where part of his family has been for over 60 years. His path to becoming a writer may seem unlikely as he struggled with dyslexia. Despite this he was always attracted to writing. He didn’t read a book until he was in the eighth grade when an inspiring teacher worked with him and he completed The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisernos, a series of vignettes about a young Chicana girl in Chicago. He fell in love with the poetry in the prose. A talented athlete, he ran track and field at Montclair State University until an injury sidelined him. To satiate his competitive nature he began participating in poetry slam competitions, starting him on his path as a performer and a writer.

With the personal being political DuWhite’s work goes beyond the page and the stage. In particular, he’s volunteered to teach writing workshops with an alternative-to-incarceration program for youth, as well as on Rikers Island, New York City’s large jail complex. He’s seen how slick the prison pipeline is, offering little to assist youth with challenges to their lives, with imprisonment seen as an easy fix. It is of course anything but. Having the piece cool a bit since performances at Dixon Place and by special invitation at the Brooklyn Museum, the pandemic gave time for the material to further percolate with the backdrop of political turmoil amidst a global health crisis that, like others before, exposes the fractures in our society and the disparities constructed by cultural and political forces.

“Throughout this experience of the pandemic it all feels more urgent to me,” says DuWhite. “The things that were exposed during this pandemic have been around since the beginning of the HIV pandemic. Coming out of this experience has me excited, and a little nervous, but excited to present this again.”

Neptune runs at the Provincetown Theater’s outdoor performance space, 238 Bradford St., Thursday, June 17 through Saturday, June 19 at 7 p.m. Tickets ($40/$50) are available at the box office and online at provincetowntheater.org. For more information call 508.487.7487.