Ryan J. Haddad is not going to make disability funny tonight the way he usually does, he tells the audience at the Public Theater near the beginning of this groundbreaking production. “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,” he adds, which gets a laugh. “But not everything is accessible to us, so why should we try to make our experiences accessible to you?”
A justifiable approach, perhaps. But as it turns out, everything about “Dark Disabled Stories” is not just accessible; it’s the most accessible play I’ve ever attended; it even expands the concept of accessible, and certainly drives it home. Much of the show is also hilarious. Some of the stories are raunchy or foul-mouthed; some are suspenseful; some make us feel exasperated along with Ryan. “Dark Disabled Stories” is rarely dark. It is always entertaining, and eye-opening.
There are a baker’s dozen of stories in this 75-minute show, about frustrating sexual encounters and frustrating bus rides; about getting outwitted by a scammer and by a broken elevator in the subway; about being patronized. A sweet elderly nurse he meets in the street asks him “where do you go to rehab?” which sets him off on a meditation on how there’s no cure for his cerebral palsy and he’s not sure he’d want one. Still, routine activities become challenges. After a business interview, he has to pee, but the pathway to the accessible bathroom is too narrow for him to navigate, and he’s too embarrassed to ask for help from his host, a university official who was meeting him about doing one of his solo shows about being disabled. “Even though, he’s offering me money to do an autobiographical show about being disabled, I can’t let him see that I’m disabled. I’ll just pee on my own time.”
What’s groundbreaking about these stories is how they’re told. Haddad is not alone on stage. Alejandra Ospina audio describes the show and Dickie Hearts uses American Sign Language. Audio description is normally for people who are blind or have low vision; American Sign Language is normally for people who are Dead or hard of hearing. But both Ospina and Hearts are performing their roles for everybody, and are fully integrated into the show. As Dickie Hearts signs when he first enters the stage (his signs voiced as words by Haddad and transcribed into open captions on the wall: “I’m not an interpreter, I’m an actor, and I will be playing ‘Ryan’ alongside Ryan, who will also be playing ‘Ryan.’” The two Ryans, with identical sweatshirts with the word “Ryan” on them, are often like a vaudeville duo. It’s all quite playful as well as pointed, delightful as well as descriptive. Near the beginning, Ospina says: “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.” Despite the show’s title, “Dark Disabled Stories” is colorfully designed and cleverly directed. Even the captions become like actors in the stories, changing fonts and colors and energetically moving around (in ways that make them easier, not more difficult to read.)
And, at certain points, both Ospina, who uses an electric wheelchair, and Hearts, who like Haddad is gay but (unlike Haddad) is Deaf, tell stories about their own lives as well.
I left “Dark Disabled Stories” wondering: Wby must a play be about people with disabilities in order to get ASL-interpreted, audio-described and Open Captioned at every performance?
Dark Disabled Stories
Public Theater through March 26, 2023. Extended to April 2
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Written by Ryan J. Haddad
Directed by Jordan Fein
Produced by The Bushwick Starr
Scenic and costume design by dots, lighting design by Oona Curley, video design by Kameron Neal, sound design by Kathy Ruvuna, director of artistic sign language Andrew Morrill, access dramaturg Alison Kopit.
Cast: Ryan J. Haddad, Dickie Hearts, and Alejandra Ospina.