Diplomacy is better than brute force, though in Ali Stroker’s case it wasn’t so much consultation and dialogue that secured her roles across film, television and theatre, being the first actress who uses a wheelchair for genuine mobility reasons on Broadway (as opposed to an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character), but a naturally very warm and bubbly personality that lights up whatever room she is in. I was going to say that her positivity is infectious, which may not be wholly appropriate vocabulary during a global pandemic – nonetheless, it is difficult to come away from a ninety-minute concert of Stroker’s and not feel better for it.
There hasn’t been an alternative career for Stroker, having been cast in the title character of a production of Annie when she was in fourth grade (when she was nine years old). She learned to sing her part by mimicking what she saw and heard in the motion picture of that show, and continued to play various roles throughout childhood, before training at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, who operate a ‘Summer Musical Theater Conservatory’, a programme for 10 to 18-year-olds that continues to this day.
Stroker sustained significant injuries in a road traffic accident at the age of two, which left her paralysed. She has therefore had to create her own breathing techniques in order to sing as authoritatively as she does – it is not possible, for instance, for her to engage her diaphragm while singing. She is not, she says, keen on battery-powered wheelchairs (that is the correct term, ‘electric chair’ meaning something else entirely) – her manual wheelchair is what she is used to, she finds it easier to get around New York in one and, perhaps most pertinently, it allows her to have more control over movement and choreography on stage.
Auditions are not so much challenges but opportunities, in which Stroker can demonstrate to producers and casting directors that ‘the chair’ isn’t a problem, but can be fun, or sassy, or even “enhance the story”. There’s a palpable commitment to normalising wheelchairs on stage, and not just for the kind of narratives in which a disabled person is campaigning for a fairer world. Hence Stroker being cast in a production of Oklahoma! in 2018, which secured a Broadway transfer in 2019, and led to her being the first disabled person to be nominated for and win the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
She performs with such passion that, in the best possible way, one forgets she is even in a wheelchair. It’s clear that she loves what she does and doesn’t mind telling personal stories – her long-term boyfriend, David Perlow, an actor and producer, is now her fiancé. Quite a broad range of tunes and styles were included in her chosen setlist, ranging from Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers to Hamilton and even The Muppet Movie. Such talent and confidence were delightful to witness.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Ali Stroker won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role as ‘Ado Annie’ in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! She most recently starred in the Lifetime holiday film, Christmas Ever After. Ali made history as the first actor in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway in Deaf West’s acclaimed 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. She starred in 12 episodes of The Glee Project, winning a guest role on Fox’s Glee. She recurred in the ABC series, Ten Days in the Valley and guest starred on CBS’ Blue Bloods, Freeform’s The Bold Type, Fox’s Lethal Weapon, CBS’ Instinct, The CW’s Charmed and Comedy Central’s Drunk History. She’s performed her cabaret act at Green Room 42 and soloed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, New York’s Town Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Carnegie Hall. Her mission to improve the lives of others through the arts, disabled or not, is captured in her motto: “Turning Your Limitations Into Your Opportunities.”
ALI STROKER with SETH RUDETSKY
Sunday, April 11th Live at 3PM EST and Rebroadcast at 8PM EST