Ali Stroker’s one piece of advice: “Listen to your gut.” Hers has certainly not led her astray. In June, the 32-year-old Broadway actress became the first performer who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony, after she was named Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role as Ado Annie in the revival of Oklahoma!
“This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge who has been waiting to see themselves represented,” she said in her acceptance speech.
But for Stroker, the Tony-winning role was about more than just representation, it was about owning her identity.
“I believe that Ado Annie’s song ‘Can’t Say No’ is such a celebration of who she is. There’s no apologizing for who she is in the world,” Stroker tells InStyle in her Badass Woman video, above. “That is a lot like who I am too.”
At two-years-old, Stroker was in a car accident and suffered a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the chest down. As a child, she says there was little hesitation about what she wanted to do. At age seven, she played the title role in a backyard production of Annie in her hometown on the Jersey shore. The production was directed by none other than Fashion designer Rachel Antonoff, then 12, Stroker told the New York Times.
“I think back and it being the first time I ever did it, I’m sort of impressed with myself,” Stroker says of her first time taking the proverbial stage.
After graduating from New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts in 2009, Stroker says roles were difficult to come by. She moved to Los Angeles and in 2012 auditioned for The Glee Project, placing second in the series and earning a guest role in Glee. Then, her agents sent her to audition for a production of Spring Awakening with the Deaf West Theatre, a production company that uses both hearing and hearing-impaired actors. In 2015 she made her Broadway debut in that production and became the first performer in a wheelchair in a Broadway show.
Stroker says she recognizes the importance of all these firsts having spent years going to the theater, and seeing movies and T.V. shows without any stars who looked like her.
“I think that young girls in wheelchairs deserve to have someone that they identify with,” she says.
It’s part of what drew her to play Ado Annie in Oklahoma! The role is traditionally a very physical and expressive one, and Stroker’s interpretation held true to the original. “We used my chair, we used my physicality,” she says.
There is still a long way to go when it comes to representation and accessibility in entertainment. Stroker has spoken about the inaccessibility of many of New York’s historic theaters: For the Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall she had to wait backstage as winners were announced because she would not have been able to come up the stairs from the audience like other award winners. But, after winning the Tony she saw a shift in the conversation and attention to these issues.
“The volume was turned up all the way and there was no turning it down,” she says.
For more from Stroker on representation, working on Broadway, and trusting your gut, watch her video, above.