Broadway has launched plenty of stars over the years, but one woman is actually changing history on the stage. Singer and actress Ali Stroker is the first person to star in a Broadway play while using a wheelchair. She's also the first disabled performer to win a Tony Award.
When Stroker was two years old, a spinal cord injury from a car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. The 32-year-old New Jersey native has used a wheelchair since then, but it hasn't kept her from pursuing the stage. She first fell in love with musical theater at age seven after performing in a neighborhood production of Annie. Growing up, she seized any opportunity to act, including a starring role in an elementary school production of The Wizard of Oz.
After high school, Stroker was accepted by the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she studied musical theater and saw as many Broadway performances as she could.
"I learned that I was my biggest advocate, and that no one was going to do this for me, I have to do it myself," Stroker tells Health. "After I graduated, it was really difficult to get auditions and try to find work because of my disability. So I just kept showing up to shows, even if I wasn’t performing."
Stroker says that through persistence and networking, she landed a spot on the second season of The Glee Project in 2012, a competition reality show for a role in the Fox TV series, Glee. She was the runner up, but even without that first-place title, the show brought her success.
That first role helped open the door to dozens of other acting opportunities, such as in ABC's series Ten Days in the Valley and Fox’s Lethal Weapon. In 2015, Stroker made her Broadway debut in Spring Awakening; she was the first person in a wheelchair to ever perform on Broadway. In 2019, Stroker won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in the Broadway musical Oklahoma!
"That really changed my life," she says. "It was this beautiful moment of feeling like I was seen and heard and celebrated and accepted by the community that I had dreamed of being a part of."
Since her Tony win, Stroker has continued her acting career while working to inspire other women and members of the disabled community. In the past year, Stroker became part of the #AerieREAL Role Model campaign, a body positivity and inclusivity initiative led by underwear retailer Aerie. Each year, the campaign highlights a diverse group of women from different industries and backgrounds and uses their unretouched photos in ads. Stroker says that this campaign allows her to give back to a cause she cares about, and it serves as a reminder that people are watching and looking to her as a role model.
"It took me years to get to this point in my life, because growing up was challenging," says Stroker. "There were times I just wanted to be like everyone else, but I'm just not. And now, I feel so lucky to not be normal."
Stroker explains that using a wheelchair can get frustrating, and at times, she can feel stuck in her own body. But because her injury is permanent, the only thing she can do is live her life and continue to pursue what makes her happy.
"Because I was injured when I was so young it’s like, this has always been me," she says. "So it’s almost weird to even call it a diagnosis, and for a long time I didn’t even use the word disability. I was like, this is just me. And so I was kind of thinking people were putting it on as a label, but I was like wait, this is just me. It’s who I am. This is my life, my body, and it’s the way that I experience the world."
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