Within the LGBTQ+ community, representation for disabled folks is still lacking. But Dickie Hearts, a Deaf actor and filmmaker with a passion for telling intersectional stories, is working tirelessly to change that.
Most recently, Hearts captivated audiences in Dark Disabled Stories at the Public Theater in New York City, which ran through April 9. The autobiographical play by and starring Ryan J. Haddad is an unflinching look at Haddad’s life as a gay man with cerebral palsy in a city designed without accessibility in mind.
Both Hearts and Haddad played the role of Ryan, working together to make Haddad’s story as accessible as possible: Hearts provided ASL interpretation throughout the show, which also featured live captioning, audio description, a movement space within the theater for any audience members who need to move, stim, or sit during the performance, and “relaxed” practices (meaning less dramatic lighting and sound and the freedom for audience members to come and go as they please). Put it all together and Dark Disabled Stories was a night at the theater that truly anyone could experience.
Though the show was based on Haddad’s own life and disability, Hearts has said its themes and storytelling are universal for disabled folks operating in an ableist world.
“Obviously, each disability is different,” Hearts told INTO. “Ryan has cerebral palsy, and I’m Deaf. But at the core, the emotional experience is very similar.”
Most of Dark Disabled Stories was pulled from Haddad’s life, but he also asked Hearts to bring his own experience with sex and dating as a Deaf man to the table. Thus, in the show, Hearts told the story of a Scruff hookup that nearly went wrong. He met up with a guy who was interested in bondage, but upon starting the hookup, Hearts’ partner made him feel unsafe by insisting they didn’t need a safe word and by restricting his hands, making Hearts incapable of signing. Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending: The two found a middle ground for communication, and ultimately, the encounter was “f*cking hot,” Hearts concluded.
It’s moments like this that show Hearts’ commitment to pushing the boundaries of representation for queer people, Deaf people, and those who hold both identities. In sharing his story, Hearts aimed to combat kinkshaming and to expand perceptions of disabled people’s sexuality.
“You reduce stigma and taboo by being open and starting that dialogue,” Hearts said. “You shouldn’t feel any shame about it. It should be fun.”
Hearts’ standout performance in Dark Disabled Stories earned him a nomination for Outstanding Featured Performer in a Play at this year’s Lucille Lortel Awards, but it’s only the latest of his projects to amplify queer Deaf stories. He’s also a talented writer and director: his 2015 short film Passengers, in which Hearts stars as a rideshare driver who has a chance encounter with a fellow Deaf rider, scored him the Best Filmmaker award at the Disability Film Challenge. (We’re still waiting on the feature-length version — this is just begging to be a rom-com!)
Hearts has also lent his talents to fan-favorite shows like Netflix’s Grace and Frankie and HBO’s High Maintenance. He also had an arc on the 2019 Tales of the City miniseries as Mateo, a scene-stealing butler.
Next, Hearts has his sights set on creating his own ASL musical. By building accessibility into theater with a model like Dark Disabled Stories’, he hopes telling disabled stories in theatrical spaces will only grow more and more common.
“Mainstream audiences are ready for a fresh storytelling experience from groups of people that we don’t see often,” Hearts said. “I’m so happy to be able to represent the Deaf and LGBTQ+ community, and I want to see more of that representation.”
very attractive on a number of levels