Perseverance is the first word that comes to mind when hearing the story of Ali Stroker.
The Tony Award-winning actress serenaded the Bing Theatre audience Monday with three songs and shared her journey from a dream-filled child to playing Ado Annie in Broadway’s adaptation of “Oklahoma!”
Hosted by Visions and Voices, the program, “Turning Limitations into Opportunities,” showcased Stroker’s endurance through a string of hurdles due to a disability she has lived with nearly her entire life. She was hurt in a car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
While the injury limited Stroker’s ability to have similar physical capabilities as her peers, she found that musical theater allowed her a different kind of movement that proved just as powerful.
“I also learned that with my voice, with my singing, I could run. I could jump. I could play like all the kids my age. Except I did it with my voice. And that changed everything,” Stroker said. “I had a new identity. I was no longer just Ali Stroker, the girl on the wheelchair. But I was Ali Stroker, the singer, the actress and soon to be dancer.”
Yet, she soon realized that the path to Broadway star was a lot more complicated being in a wheelchair. When Stroker attended the NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 2005, for example, she had to adapt the courses to her needs without the help of others.
“I was met with people who didn’t understand. They didn’t know how to teach me. And this was going to be the greatest challenge and the greatest gift that I got from college,” Stroker said. “Because I realized that I was going to have to do some educating. ’Cause I was the expert after all. There were no teachers in chairs. There were no other students in chairs.”
However, after graduating in 2009 and pursuing different projects, including “The Glee Project,” Deaf West’s production of “Spring Awakening,” and most recently “Oklahoma!,” Stroker finally saw the payoff from years of working, perfecting and believing with her Tony win this past June.
“I thought a little about what I was going to say, and I was reminded that week of watching the Tonys for so many years and being that dreamer,” Stroker said. “Dreaming of being up there. And I said what I said that night, because I had never felt like I had dreamt of someone like me winning or seeing someone like me on stage … That is why I dedicated the award to all kids watching who have a disability, who have a limitation, who have a challenge.”
The audience’s reactions to the event were strongly positive. Many attendees expressed the immense impact Stroker has had on their personal struggles with disabilities during the Q&A section and after the show.
“Someone asked a question about dealing with invisible illnesses, which is something I have, and I really liked how she talked about, not only about self-advocacy, but also about saying what you need and saying thank you afterwards,” said Sara Zuluaga-Sierra, a sophomore studying NGOs and social change.
Also present in the audience were some of Stroker’s friends who have seen parts of her journey to the Broadway stage. Chelsie Hill, a friend of Stroker since 2012, talked about the influence Stroker has had on her own personal history with a disability.
“I think the biggest thing Ali has ever taught me when I was first injured was turning your limitations into opportunities, and it’s so cool to see her eight years later still saying the same thing and with all the achievements she’s done,” Hill said.
To all aspiring performers with disabilities, Stroker instilled these words: “I’m the first, but you can be the second and the third. So there are no more excuses. You belong here now, so come on. We need you.”