On June 9, 2010, actress Ali Stroker became the first person who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony Award. “This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena,” said Stroker, who won her Tony playing fearless and sexy Ado Annie in Oklahoma! As The New York Times described her riveting performance, Stroker “rides a wheelchair as if it were a prize bronco.”
Stroker is no stranger to being a groundbreaker. In 2015 she made history as the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage, as she played Anna in Deaf West’s 2015 critically acclaimed revival of Spring Awakening.
When Stroker was 2, a car accident left her paralyzed from the chest down. “I felt like my identity was around my wheelchair for so long,” she says. But her life took a radical turn one summer as a 7-year-old. Her next-door neighbor decided to direct a backyard production of Annie, and cast Stroker as Annie. “It was a really special summer. I remember my life beginning,” says the Ridgewood, New Jersey native. “Once I started performing I was someone else. I could be an actress and singer and not just a girl in a wheelchair.”
Stroker is once again making history. She next stars in the romantic comedy Christmas Ever After on Lifetime. Stroker plays a romance novelist seeking love. It is the first time Lifetime has placed an actor in a wheelchair in a starring role. The movie was filmed during the pandemic with Stroker and her co-star, Daniel di Tomasso, kissing through plexiglas. She has remained steadfast that people in wheelchairs should see themselves in romantic situations. “This character has a disability. She’s in a wheelchair, and that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have these romantic storylines in her life,” Stroker recently told People magazine. “Representation means so much to me.”
In her TEDx Talk, If There’s a Wheel There’s a Way, Stroker has said that she hopes to inspire people to follow their dreams no matter where they are in life. “There are things that I can’t do. But there are so many things that I can do and offer,” she says. “One of the greatest parts about being in a chair is that I can’t hide. My greatest strength and my greatest insecurity are out there for the world to see. But we all have challenges. It doesn’t matter who you are. Everyone is facing them.”
Stroker recently chatted about the physical challenges of Oklahoma, her love for Broadway, and her life off the stage.
You have been breaking down barriers for years. How do you feel being an inspiration to so many?
Ali Stroker: It’s cool because with social media, you are able to connect with a lot of people. I hear from a lot of young aspiring performers, actors, singers and musicians who have disabilities. They say how exciting it is to see someone in a chair on Broadway and on television and working. And how that really motivates and inspires them to keep going. It makes me feel amazing to be able to be that for them. I did not have that as an 11-year-old girl pursuing this dream.
Your dancing in Oklahoma was so fantastic. Can you talk about working with the choreographer?
Ali Stroker: I got to collaborate with our choreographer and director very closely. Because the reality is that I know my vocabulary, as far as movement goes, the best. We talked a lot about what could work throughout the show. Especially because this character in this role has relationships with two different guys. How are we going to physicalize all of that? The first part of that process is trust–to have these conversations with them about the way that I move. We discovered the way in which we can portray this woman’s sexuality and physicality. It all had to be done in a safe way. They had never worked with someone in a chair. So it has been really, really fun to find that with them.
Can you talk about your Broadway debut in Spring Awakening?
Ali Stroker: I made my Broadway debut in 2015 and became the first actor in a wheelchair to ever be on Broadway. That changed my life. I had always dreamt of performing on Broadway. When you have a dream for a really long time and then it comes through, you realize dreams and goals can be real. They don’t have to be something that you imagine in your head. It gives a different kind of confidence that there are other things that have never been done or that I really want that I can achieve.
What was one of the first Broadway shows you saw?
Ali Stroker: The first Broadway show I ever saw was Beauty and the Beast. I was in the first grade. It was larger than life and so cool. Everyone was so talented and I thought, I want to do that someday. At the time I was living in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where I was born and raised.
When the curtain comes down, how do you get back to you?
Ali Stroker: I have this beautiful relationship with my partner, David. Just being in touch with him makes me feel connected. Calling him, going home, having dinner and being in our world makes me come back. I think as actors, it’s nice to have interactions with people after a show. And sometimes it feels really good to go home, put on your pajamas and have dinner at home with your person.