'Dark Disabled Stories' review — a challenge to create a more inclusive world
Read our four-star review of Ryan J. Haddad's Dark Disabled Stories, which is currently in performances off Broadway at The Public Theater through March 26.
The set for Dark Disabled Stories, created by the design collective dots, is anything but dark. At the beginning of the play, (mostly) offstage performer Alejandra Ospina describes it in a clarion voice: “The set is a long shallow box raised 16 inches above the floor. Rectangular in shape and light pink. Very, very pink: Benjamin Moore’s Island Sunset Pink.” The platform is flanked with sequin-wrapped poles and topped with big, pillowy bubble letters that spell the show’s title. It’s a bright, stark contrast to the show’s content, which exposes the harsh reality of everyday experiences for disabled people.
The 75-minute autobiographical show, written by and starring Ryan J. Haddad, probes ableism and his experience as a gay man with cerebral palsy living in New York City. The co-production between the Bushwick Starr and The Public Theater features vignettes of his stories of dating, working, and getting from place to place. The beachy set transforms the Public’s Shiva Theater space into a gay bar, a bus, a subway, an apartment, and even a barn.
Ospina’s audio descriptions are just one of the show’s integrated accessibility elements. Captions appear on the back wall of the set, and Dickie Hearts, a Deaf performer, transcribes the show in American Sign Language alongside Haddad. Each performance is relaxed, with dimmed house lights, and there’s an offstage movement space for patrons, complete with tactile samples of the plush letters on the set. And while the show is accessible to disabled people, its message targets non-disabled people.
“I try to make disability funny so that non-disabled people can understand it and open themselves to it... Not tonight. I don't feel like it,” Haddad explains at the outset. “I'm not saying I won't make you laugh at all. I'll probably make you laugh a lot. I'm a naturally comedic person. But not everything is accessible to us, so why should we try to make our experiences accessible to you?”
Indeed, the writer-performer makes the audience laugh a lot. He has an endearing charisma, knock-your-socks-off confidence, and tip-top comedic timing. He’s open about his sexuality, and some of the funniest scenes begin with a declaration of feeling horny. Haddad shares his universal stories of first-date jitters, business-meeting nerves, and airport security anxieties. His cerebral palsy and use of a walker only heighten these experiences.
Haddad and Hearts don crewneck sweaters with “Ryan” embroidered on the front. But Hearts’s onstage role is threefold: he acts out scenes as Haddad in ASL, performs as himself in one portion, and takes on other characters, including bus drivers, nosy neighbors, and Grindr dates. Hearts is also an onstage companion, offering Haddad a hand to hold and a shoulder to lean on. In one scene, when Haddad talks about his glasses sliding off while using a public restroom, Hearts manually glides Haddad’s spectacles down his nose. He’s an ebullient and energetic presence.
Jordan Fein’s skillful direction balances the laughter with a well-paced dosing of the grim truth — New York City, like the world, is not built for disabled people. Media often represents the disabled experience as monolithic, but Dark Disabled Stories includes a variety of lenses. In addition to Haddad, Hearts and Ospina share their life experiences.
In one scene, Haddad assumes the role of audio describing. Ospina takes center stage to talk about the challenges of navigating New York City’s public transportation with a power chair, recounting several times a lack of working subway elevators and unhelpful staff kept her trapped underground. Hearts contributes a story about the challenges of dating as a Deaf person: “I want a partner; I want intimacy. Intimacy is rarely accessible to me because of the language barrier. But it's bigger than just a language barrier. Are men willing to make an effort?”
Are non-disabled people willing to make an effort? That’s a main throughline, one Haddad drives home through vulnerability and pointed takeaways. Haddad’s previous solo shows Hi, Are You Single? and Falling For Make Believe balanced humor with education about the disabled experience. Dark Disabled Stories goes a step further, interrogating the audience: What are you doing to make the world more inclusive?
Photo credit: Ryan J. Haddad and Dickie Hearts in Dark Disabled Stories. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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