By Brady Rhoades
Don’t be surprised if one day you see Tony Award-winning actress and singer Alyson “Ali” Stroker on the Big Screen, and don’t think twice if you’re smiling.
“I want to create content that makes people feel good,” Stroker, who won a historic Tony for portraying Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, told DIVERSEability Magazine. “There’s a lot of stress and anxiety in the world and we as artists have the ability to change that.”
Stroker is the first actress in a wheelchair to win a Tony. It happened on June 9 of this year. Hearts fluttered, heartbeats quickened, tears flowed and…
“It’s been unbelievable,” said the 32-year-old native of New Jersey. “For the disabled community it’s really cool to see yourself represented in this arena.”
Stroker, paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident when she was 2, is a role model for the disabled. While she avoids sermonizing, she doesn’t hesitate to talk about the virtues of work, perseverance and independence.
“Putting your destiny in someone else’s hands is never going to make you feel powerful,” she said. “I’m more inclined to tell disabled people to create communities of people you trust, and then create your own work. It’s better to do that than to talk.”
And for all young artists, she has a question.
“What do you want to create?”
That’s a core challenge for Stroker. It’s at the heart of being an artist.
It’s what she asked herself as a child (“I sang all day, every day”) and what she asks herself as an adult, and as a star.
But it should be stressed that Stroker earned the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for just one reason: she’s really, really good.
“It didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, you did something to overcome being in a chair,’” she said. “It was actually, ‘We’re recognizing you for being at the highest level of your field.’ That’s what I’ve always wanted.”
Stroker was born with a passion for the stage, but it took hold—with the strength of a farmer—when she was 7, in a backyard production of Annie.
“When I got on stage, it was the first time that I felt powerful,” Stroker said. “I was used to people staring at me, but they were staring at me because I was in a wheelchair. And when I was on stage, they were staring at me because I was the star… I particularly feel that I can’t hide on stage and that’s a gift.”
It’s fitting that, 25 years later, she’s wowing crowds on Broadway as Ado Annie, who is so unwilling be anything but herself that her catch-line is, “How can I be what I ain’t?”
“She doesn’t ever apologize for who she is,” Stroker said. “She doesn’t have any shame about who she is. Her wants, her desires, are so clear.”
Alyson Mackenzie Stroker was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey. She studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and earned a bachelor of fine arts. She was the first actress in a wheelchair to earn a degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
After graduation, she auditioned for The Glee Project at a casting call in New York City. Stroker is a Mezzo-Soprano but because she is paralyzed, she cannot engage her diaphragm, so she created her own singing techniques “to develop resonance so my voice would carry.”
Stroker guest-starred on Season 4 of Glee, then her agent sent her to audition for a Deaf West Theatre production of Spring Awakening.
In 2015, Stroker won the role of Anna. When Spring Awakening opened on Broadway, Stroker became the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage.
The show was a smash. So was Stroker.
She has had several stage, TV and film parts, and she will have many more, but to date she is best known for Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
But there’s more to her than her craft. Did you know she’s a strong swimmer, and is learning to surf? Did you know she’s co-chair of Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of New York City? And she’s a founding member of Be More Heroic, an anti-bullying campaign which tours the country connecting with thousands of students each year. She’s also gone to South Africa with ARTS InsideOut, where she has held theater classes and workshops for women and children affected by HIV and AIDS.
She credits a strong support system for her success. That support system includes her parents and boyfriend. “I’m so glad to have a partner who gets it,” she said. “He encourages me when I’m scared to go after the things I want.”
When Stroker won her Tony Award at Radio City Music Hall, she did not emerge from the crowd. She was backstage. Like many old buildings, the Music Hall, which opened in 1932, was not wheelchair accessible from the audience.
Stroker said the Music Hall did the best it could, but was limited by
It’s not a problem unique to the Music Hall, but it is emblematic.
For the disabled community, access is a profound word.
Access to stages. To roles. To higher education. To jobs. To Stroker and thousands upon thousands of others, access is opportunity.
“As a society, we have to work on improving access,” Stroker said. “I’ve found that theaters being built now are doing that.”
William Shakespeare famously said that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
If that’s true, then Stroker is a player in the limelight, staging her encore. As she stated in a recent interview with The New York Times, “I know in many ways that this is what I was born to do…it’s so clear I was meant to be in this seat.”