Thursday, April 6, 2023

‘Dark Disabled Stories’ review: When the world isn’t built for you

From The New York Times:

Near the start of “Dark Disabled Stories,” the playwright-performer Ryan J. Haddad’s richly provocative new show at the Public Theater, he tells a funny, sexy anecdote about a hookup at a gay bar that didn’t go the way he’d hoped.

Haddad has cerebral palsy and uses a walker. In the story, he finds himself stranded without it — a plot twist that caused his audience, the other night, to breathe a soft sound of sympathy. Haddad must have been expecting this, because his reaction is right there in the script. He invites anyone who regards him as “sad or pitiable” to leave.

“I am not here to be pitied and I am not a victim,” he says. “Is that clear?” Then, with startling sternness, an unscripted repetition: “Is that clear?”

Quite. But one other thing needs to be made clear immediately, which is that Haddad is an actor and writer of extraordinary charm. Disarmingly witty, immensely likable, he is not about to spend his show lecturing you.

He will make you laugh, though. And with his director, Jordan Fein, and fellow actors, Dickie Hearts and Alejandra Ospina, he will change the way you think about disability — and prompt you to think of accessibility as something that can deepen a dramatic experience when it’s built into the architecture of the piece.

The autobiographical stories here — set on buses, or on Grindr dates, or on the pitted streets of New York — are calibrated to blast away condescension and replace it with something closer to comprehension. Partly, they’re about how arduous it can be to navigate a world that’s oblivious to your comfort and safety, because it wasn’t built with your kind of body in mind. But these stories are also about the body as an instrument of pleasure, a vessel of longing, a means of communication.

Presented by the Public and the Bushwick Starr, “Dark Disabled Stories” is a highly theatrical, gracefully layered model of inventive inclusivity. Haddad and Hearts, a Deaf actor who radiates charisma, play parallel versions of a character called Ryan. Haddad speaks the lines; Hearts signs them. (The director of artistic sign language is Andrew Morrill.) The written dialogue is projected, attractively, on the upstage wall.

Ospina spends most of the show just offstage, periodically speaking audio description that is anything but intrusive. When she says that the set is not merely “very, very pink” but in fact “Benjamin Moore’s Island Sunset pink,” this is valuable intel for us all. (Set and costume design are by dots, lighting by Oona Curley, sound by Kathy Ruvuna, video by Kameron Neal.)

Ospina also briefly takes the stage in her wheelchair to tell her own dark story, about what it’s like to be trapped in a subway station with the elevators out. It’s not the only tale that might make you wish, urgently, that the M.T.A. would send a delegation to see this play.

“Dark Disabled Stories” is in the Public’s most accessible theater, the Shiva on the first floor. Yet masks are required at only a few performances each week — the Public’s default policy.

So on your seat before mask-optional performances, alongside your playbill, you’ll find a complimentary mask and a kindly worded note. “‘Dark Disabled Stories’ is a show grounded in disability cultural values. In disability culture, the community practices collective care to protect each other,” it says, asking that you mask up. The night I went, most people did.

The note is signed, “Thanks from the company of ‘Dark Disabled Stories.’” But should the company have had to make that request? Among the takeaways from the play is how enervating it can be to have to plead constantly for access and understanding. A blanket mask requirement for this show would have been a reasonable accommodation.