There are many reasons why Ali Stroker is a force to be reckoned with. Not only is she an award-winning actress and singer, she’s also a motivational speaker and a role model for people with disabilities. Stroker is in a wheelchair with a spinal injury she incurred in a car crash when she was just 2 years old. Her acting career started at the age of 7 with a backyard production of Annie. Directed by her 12-year-old next-door neighbor, Stroker played the titular role. “It was a moment of finding an outlet and my purpose,” she says. “When I performed in front of people, all of those years of pain and feeling like I was being seen in a certain way because they felt sorry for me faded away.”
“Suddenly, I realized that I could take all of this attention that I was being given in my life and flip it,” adds Stroker. “As a performer, I had more control—and that’s why I became obsessed. It wasn’t just a hobby or something that I was good at—it was also an opportunity to change my life, in a way.”
As an adult, Stroker made history when she became the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway, originating the role of ‘Anna’ in Deaf West’s 2015 acclaimed revival of Spring Awakening. In 2019, she did it again when she won a Tony for her scene-stealing turn as Ado Annie in the celebrated 2019 restaging of Oklahoma! She accepted the award in a showstopping custom gown designed by Rachel Antonoff, who, as fate would have it, was the same next-door neighbor who directed her in Annie when they were kids.
And Stroker is just getting started. Here, she talks about overcoming obstacles, changing the perceptions about people living with disabilities, and making her own opportunities for mega-success along the way.
You work with the anti-bullying non-profit, Be More Heroic. Were you bullied as a kid?
I was not bullied, but I did experience being excluded—and not just by my peers but by adults. Many people have fear around how to include someone with a disability, and as an adult, I finally have words to put to that question: How do you include people with disabilities? My answer is you invite them and allow them to adapt and make the decision for themselves. Whether or not they want to join or they want to be a part of something, you always invite and you always people no matter what their limitations are. Then they can make the decision about whether or not they’re able to participate. At Be More Heroic, we talk a lot about how to deal with being in really challenging situations in school, and we also throw a concert. It’s a fantastic opportunity to use my gift and share my story, which has been a massive part of my life.
Your life motto is: “Turning Your Limitations Into Your Opportunities.” What inspired it?
I came up with that motto because it perfectly brought together who I am. This limitation that people see can also be my opportunity every day. Having a disability and being in a chair has opened so many doors for me—and I live by it to this day because the moment you begin to feel like your limitations are holding you back is when you start to find those parts of your life where they are. It’s a headspace, and it’s become my motto-slash-religion.
What are the challenges you have faced and overcome as an actress in a cutthroat industry?
I went to school at New York University, where I was in the musical theater program. They do this thing called “type-ing,” which identifies what types of parts you play. At the time, I was finding that I didn’t fit into any type, so I realized I was going to have to create my own type. When I graduated, I had a tough time—I couldn’t even get an audition. So I began writing this one-woman show and dreaming up my own ideas. And then, I slowly began to get parts.
I was able to see that if I could use my wheelchair in a way that was going to keep me busy creatively, I could make something different and original with my disability. Having a physical disability that is visible is something that is so important for the person to own. I use this phrase, “hosting your own party,” which means that when you’re in a room with people that you don’t know, feel free to talk about it, so they know that it’s up for discussion. It’s not something that we’re afraid of or can’t talk about. Having a disability doesn’t make me that different than you. My life might look a bit different, but my feelings, my pain, my joy, my excitement, my determination are just like everybody else’s.
I would love to talk about Oklahoma!. Ado Annie is the role of a lifetime, and your rendition of the song, “I Cain’t Say No” was truly the standout performance of the show.
That song is such an anthem, and I always took it to be a song about saying yes to life. Ado Annie is a girl who is curious and hungry for life and also for answers. She has so many questions, and I love that about her. Playing Ado Annie every night reminded me to stay in the moment and stay curious about the world because as you get older, that curiosity can sometimes fade. I have learned that staying curious brings so much more joy into your life.
Winning a Tony Award is an incredible achievement, especially at a young age. How did it feel?
The theater world is a community that I always wanted to be a part of and be accepted by. In so many ways, winning the Tony Award felt like the community was saying: “Yes, we love and celebrate what you do and [give us] more please.” My friend and I like to use this metaphor about getting a green light in life—and the Tony was such a green light for all of this work, time, patience, dedication, and drive I’ve put in. It was a moment of celebration, and it felt so good.
In the past, you’ve talked about how fashion is not representative of people with disabilities. What are your thoughts on what fashion can and should be doing?
The numbers are a little shocking as far as how many Americans are disabled, and so few are represented. it has a little bit to with people not really wanting to look disability in the eye because it makes them uncomfortable. The reality is that, at some point in your life, you may have some kind of disability or limitation, whether physically or psychologically, because it’s part of getting older. I live my life sitting down, and yet so much of fashion is about standing up, from runways to mannequins. There’s an opportunity where for every four mannequins, one of them is sitting down to show what the clothes look like that way. For any thought to be put into what it is to want to be dressed in a fashionable way and also have a different body type is crucial.
There’s been more emphasis on “adaptive fashion” lately. For example, Tommy Hilfiger recently did an adaptive fashion collection for people with disabilities. I’ll be honest, the term adaptive fashion isn’t all that appealing to me. I deal with adaptive things my entire day—whether it be parking, bathrooms, or accessible entrances—and I don’t want to bring my clothing into that category. With so many of us dressing from the waist up right now because of Covid-19 and time spent on screens, it’s a chance for designers to create more things that are fun on top.