Photo by Joel Barhamand, Hair and Makeup by Mary Gordon, Location: The Assemblage John Street, New York
“I was used to being stared at,” says Ali Stroker, who has been wheelchair-bound since she was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident at age 2. “But the first time I got onstage”—in a backyard production of Annie at age 7—“it felt like people were looking at me for a reason that I wanted.” Stroker went on to get a BFA in drama at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, despite “people who weren’t sure [acting] was something I could do,” and after graduation she landed a small role on Glee. Then, in 2015, she became the first actor in a wheelchair in Broadway history, in the Tony-nominated revival of Spring Awakening.
Stroker, now 31, continues breaking barriers on Broadway this month, playing the sexually liberated Ado Annie in a reimagined Oklahoma! “It’s so fun to play somebody who doesn’t apologize for who they are,” says Stroker, who is reprising the role from the show’s acclaimed Off-Broadway run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last fall. “It’s helped me to use my own voice.” The unconventional production is noted for juxtaposing the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs with timely themes and modern costumes. New York Times critic Ben Brantley said of Stroker’s performance, “[She] turns her wheelchair into an all-conquering tool that matches her sly, vanquishing smile.”
While Stroker is focused on Oklahoma! for the time being, her career goals moving forward include writing and staring in a TV series, publishing a book she wrote for teenagers, and recording an album. “I’ve found that being in a chair, it’s important to be hosting the party,” she explains. “I think people who aren’t disabled often look at somebody with a disability and think, ‘That must be so hard.’ Of course my life is challenging, but I love it. I love being in a wheelchair and where that has brought me.”