As Dickie Hearts steps onstage in the new play Dark Disabled Stories, he is first carefully described by his co-performer, Alejandra Ospina.
“Dickie is multiracial with light brown skin, dark brown curly hair, light scruff, and is wearing hearing aids,” says Ospina, her words projected, like all of the show’s text, on the back wall behind the performers.
Hearts then introduces himself in American Sign Language (ASL).
“I’m not Ryan,” he says with a sly smile, aware that he’s wearing a sweatshirt with the name ‘Ryan’ embroidered across it. “I’m Dickie, and I’ll be playing ‘Ryan’ alongside Ryan, who will also be playing ‘Ryan.’”
An award-winning Deaf writer and performer, Hearts has racked up credits in theater, film, and television, including guest appearances on Netflix’s Tales of the City and HBO’s High Maintenance. But when he first received the script for Ryan J. Haddad’s Dark Disabled Stories, it was unlike anything he’d ever encountered. He knew immediately: “This is a story that needs to be told.”
Haddad’s autobiographical work is a series of witty, brutally candid vignettes about navigating a city and a world not built for his walker and cerebral palsy. Haddad recounts challenging dates, MTA nightmares, and perilous Grindr hook-ups.
Hearts was blown away by its resonance with his own experience.
“I immediately connected to it,” Hearts told INTO, communicating in ASL, leaning forward emphatically as we chatted on The Public Theater’s mezzanine. “Obviously, each disability is different. Ryan has cerebral palsy, and I’m Deaf. But at the core, the emotional experience is very similar.”
Casually chic in a blue denim shirt, orange corduroys, and a backward baseball cap, Hearts is a warm, soulful presence. He pauses thoughtfully after each answer, often adding a few additional thoughts upon reflection — or even circling back later in our chat to add particular context around the disabled and Deaf experience.
This staging, at The Public and produced by The Bushwick Starr, is built on a vision of integrated access. It incorporates live captioning, audio description (performed by Ospina), and ASL performance by Hearts. He stands alongside Haddad throughout the evening, performing as Ryan, with Ryan.
To pull off this dual performance, Haddad and Hearts needed to form a close connection. In rehearsals, director Jordan Fein would have the two sit across from one another while reading scenes, observing the other closely as they spoke and signed.
“We would look at each other, study each other’s body movements, and pick up each other’s pacing,” said Hearts. “Those moments where he would react, then I knew I would react.”
The two silently check in a few times during each performance to ensure they are still in sync, both in timing and emotion.
“We have to be mindful and remember, there’s another person here,” said Hearts. “I’m here, Ryan’s here. Ryan is my partner. This experience is embodied in both of us.”
“Our chemistry felt instantaneous, raw, and natural. And over these months, we’ve built a deep trust with each other, physically and emotionally, onstage and backstage. I literally shake him and fall into him at one point in the show. He lets me just go for it, and he fully supports my body with his body,” Haddad told INTO. “It’s an intimate stage relationship, and that’s turned into an intimate friendship. We are kindred spirits, it feels like. Single, gay boys whose journey with love has been fraught so far. But we love each other. I’m so grateful we are doing this together and that we have found our way into each other’s lives.”
In addition to providing greater access, Hearts says including ASL enhances the storytelling.
“One of my biggest goals is to elevate Ryan’s story by adding that visual element of ASL,” he explained. “I would like to help paint a picture, so to speak, of his stories.”
Upon first reading the script, Hearts assumed that co-performance would be the extent of his role. However, when Haddad explained that he also wanted Hearts to share a story of his own experience with disability, he was thrilled but intimidated.
He found inspiration in one of Haddad’s accounts from the show: a failed Grindr hook-up that briefly threatens to become dangerous. Hearts had just dealt with a similar experience. While on location filming in Utah, he had found a man on Scruff who shared his desires: bondage, roleplay, and total power exchange.
But when the two meet, the man shifts their rules by asking to incorporate handcuffs and insists they don’t “need” a safe word. The ensuing roleplay briefly feels unsafe when Hearts loses access to his hands and can’t signal for a pause. But the two ultimately find a successful physical communication and, as Hearts concludes, “It’s f*cking hot.”
Hearts admits he was “apprehensive” to tell the story, knowing that fetishes still carry some stigma. A line in the script even anticipates audience discomfort at his first mention of bondage play: “No kink-shaming, b*tches. No kink-shaming!”
“You reduce stigma and taboo by being open and starting that dialogue,” said Hearts, who hopes his openness will help reduce stigma around kinks and fetishes. “You shouldn’t feel any shame about it. It should be fun.”
Hearts adds that for him, the story is less about sex than an intense desire for human connection and understanding. That’s a desire that anyone can understand, driving home a central point of Dark Disabled Stories: disability is human, an inherently human experience like all others.
“Dickie is wildly charming and the brightest light in any room,” said Haddad of Hearts’ presence both on and offstage. “He sparkles with joy, and he is the kindest, most sincere human. He is proud of who he is, all that he is, all of his identities. He is an extraordinary storyteller, a gifted actor, with great depth and emotional resonance.”
Next up, Hearts is working on his own ASL musical. He hopes that the integrated access model of Dark Disabled Stories will set a precedent, noting that making space for disabled artists in the theatrical space allows for new stories and perspectives.
“Mainstream audiences are ready for a fresh storytelling experience from groups of people that we don’t see often,” said Hearts. “I’m so happy to be able to represent the Deaf and LGBTQ+ community, and I want to see more of that representation.”
Dark Disabled Stories plays through April 9 at The Public Theater in New York City.