As a fellow Jersey Girl and an actor that has challenges, I wanted to do an editorial about Ali Stroker and include a discussion about how actors with challenges can be included in the performing theater industry. Just as she has made a living as an actress on Broadway who uses a wheelchair, I have been involved in community theater as an actress with a hearing loss.
Ali Stroker made history on Sunday, June 7th, 2019 by being the first actor in a wheelchair to win a Tony Award, winning as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as Ado Annie in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. The 31-year-old native of Ridgewood, New Jersey, was left paralyzed from the chest down when the car she was riding in swerved to avoid a pile of leaves, and collided with another car; it also left her brother with a traumatic brain injury from this same accident. At seven, Ali Stroker got her start in the theater when her neighbor Rachel Antonoff said she would direct a backyard production of Annie starring her.
Ali Stroker came into the public eye when she was on season two of the TV competition show, The Glee Project. As a finalist, she was on an episode of Glee called “I Do,” as Betty Pillsbury, the niece of the recurring character Emma Pillsbury. She appeared as Wendy on the TV series Faking It from 2014 to 2015. Her Broadway debut happened in 2015, when she played Anna in Deaf West ‘s Spring Awakening. In 2017, she was on three episodes of Ten Days in the Valley as Tamara, and other TV shows. Returning to live theater in 2018, she appeared in two Off-Broadway productions, a concert of Promises, Promises, and as Ado Anne in St. Ann’s Warehouse revival of Oklahoma, which was her springboard to the Broadway production.
“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,” Stroker said in her acceptance speech. As someone who has been performing on stage (and stage crew) for twenty years I find it astonishing that the Tony Awards have been running for 73 years, and this was the first year we saw a win for someone who uses a wheelchair. Ail Stroker’s win is a step in getting the community to cast disabled actors in the theater more. Some progress has been made, such as the Broadway play Cost of Living in 2017, which started Gregg Mozgala, an actor born with cerebral palsy, and Katy Sullivan, an actress without lower legs. Deaf West Theater in Los Angeles merges the Deaf and the Hearing communities by using deaf culture in their work and using Deaf community as actors. Deaf West brought Spring Awakening, which included Deaf actors to the Broadway stage. Personally, I experienced a delightful production of Guys and Dolls at the Panera Theatre on the campus of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester New York. In Guys and Dolls, lead roles were duel played with a hearing actor behind a deaf actor. I found no problems with this alternative casting, nor did the rest of the audience. Moving forward, as noted above the theater community should strive to cast actors with challenges and disabilities in a broad range of roles.
I understand that it would be a challenge to cast this way universally as an actor’s particular disability ) may preclude them from the physical challenges of a particular role (although I’m sure a creative set designer could figure a way to make Ali’s wheelchair fly in on a bubble as Glinda). The roles that require a large amount of dance, such as Reno Sweeney, would be tough for someone who has a mobility disability, although I am sure adjustments could be made if needed. As someone with a hearing loss, I don’t believe I will ever be cast as a leading lady, because I have a hard time hearing some of the notes. An actor who is Deaf will likely only been seen on stage with a shadow actor, and I would like to see these actors be used more wildy with an interpreter. The industry has come a long way from where we were years ago casting minorities and people of color, and now it is time to make those same advances for actors with challenges and disabilities.
I hope you enjoyed learning about Ali Stroker, and if you already knew about her, I hope you enjoyed reading about her. I am so happy that an actor with a disability was represented on Broadway’s biggest night.The Tony Awards did not have a ramp for Ali Stroker, so she was kept back stage when her category was announced. One day I hope to see ramps at all theaters including Radio City Music Hall, so actors of all kinds can be seen in the venue. As people with disabilities and challenges, we might be different from what a theatergoer might expect, but we rehearse just as hard (and sometimes harder) as any actor and enjoy bringing our character to life on the stage.