Profile: 2020 Ed Roberts Award Honoree, Ali Stroker
Between rehearsals and press appearances, Ali Stroker took some time to meet with TheCIL in a Manhattan studio. We discussed her Tony-award winning Oklahoma! performance and the journey that led her to become the first person who uses a wheelchair to be nominated or to win a Tony.
Ali was born and raised in New Jersey, where she was first introduced to musical theatre by her neighbor on the Jersey Shore. The pair staged a backyard production of Annie, where Ali had her first starring role. From that point on, she was hooked.
At eighteen, Ali moved to New York to study drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She debuted professionally in 2012, where she was a contestant on Ryan Murphy’s The Glee Project, a competitive reality show where the winner earned a spot on Glee -- a show well known for featuring stories that weren’t celebrated in the mainstream. This sensibility is a core component of theatre culture, where drama and performance have long served as a haven for those in search of belonging, or for a place where they can shine.
Ali knows that her talent on stage speaks for itself, and seemed perplexed that her disability gets so much spotlight, saying “People don’t realize that the way that I move and the way that I am in the world, the way that I move around New York City is just normal. It’s the way I do things. That goes for a lot of people living with disabilities. I don’t see it as being different or a disadvantage.”
Although Ali placed second in The Glee Project, the creators were nevertheless impressed with her talent and offered her a guest role on Glee. Reminiscing on that time, Ali shared, “getting to tell a story a little bit like mine on Glee was such a thrill; it was my break when I first got into the industry. I’m so grateful for that forever.”
When pursuing roles, Ali viewed her wheelchair as an opportunity and a tool that provided her the creative and strategic power to translate each role into her own language. “My wheelchair is sort of my secret weapon. It’s the thing that makes me different and it’s also a gift,” she expressed. When approaching a role, she asks herself: “How am I going to translate movement designed for people who are able-bodied to work for me in my chair?” The creativity springs forth from there, and she can enjoy the added pleasure of building upon her vocabulary of physical movement.
“One of my mottos is that I believe that when you have a disability and you enter a room, it is your responsibility to host the party. What I mean is I have a choice of how I want to be seen.”
Ali simply does not see her disability as a limitation or challenge in her field. “I believe that the disability doesn’t need to be written into a script in order for me to be able to play a role. I’m not addressing my wheelchair in every room I’m in, and yet the chair is with us. So we’re forced to address it whether we’re talking about it or not,” she maintained. She sees this as a way that stage and film performance allow actors to portray disability with authenticity.
On June 9, 2019, Ali won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. When she dreamed of winning, she thought of her younger self, watching the Tonys every year and looking for someone like herself. Now in that position, she accepted her award and publicly dedicated it to youth with disabilities, proclaiming to the community that we are now represented in theatre at the highest level.
Ali beamed when speaking about the advances currently being made by and for people with disabilities. “Now that I have time, I’d like to follow up on [my acceptance speech] and say that this is a call to action. No more excuses. Any challenge you have, any limitation, whatever the disability, you have an opportunity to go after your dreams. No one’s stopping you, and I believe that this is the time. Dream big!”
With Oklahoma! ending its Broadway run on January 19th, she anticipates a period of rest and reflection before embarking on new projects. Her first and foremost priority is her growth as an artist, human, and activist. She wants to continue focusing on her advocacy work for the disability community, particularly within her world of theatre.
The 2019 Tony Awards took place at Radio City Music Hall. When Ali accepted her award, she entered from stage left rather than from the audience because there was no ramp leading to the stage. This is the case for most performing venues in New York, where a venue may be accessible for patrons but not for those on stage. Ali is determined to change that, emphasizing “I think it’s important to make backstage more accessible for actors and crew. In all of the cabaret venues around New York, where I first began to be seen in the city, most stages aren’t accessible. I really believe that if there’s a will, there’s a way. And I have the will, so I want to find more ways to create accessibility in those venues.”