Oklahoma! Tony Award winner will headline Easterseals’ 100th anniversary gala
When Ali Stroker became the first actor who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony Award last summer, she wasn’t thinking about the more than 100 years of modern Broadway that had come before her. She was thinking of all the no-longer marginalized artists who will now come after her.
“It is surprising that there has never been anybody in a chair in my position before. But if you look at it another way: Maybe it’s because now is the time – and that is really exciting to me,” Stroker told the DCPA NewsCenter. “I have never been one who focuses on the past. I’m always looking toward what can we change and improve and progress next?
Stroker, who will continue to perform through January in Broadway’s Oklahoma! as an Ado Annie who happens to use a wheelchair, will be the featured entertainer on Friday (November 15) at Easterseals Colorado’s 100th anniversary “Season of Lights” gala at the Hyatt Regency Denver. Stroker says it should be a beautiful, fun night.
“I am going to sing a few of my favorite songs and tell some stories about my life, and about this past year and winning the Tony Award,” said Stroker, who teased that it is “most likely” she will sing Ado Annie’s signature song from Oklahoma!, “Cain’t Say No.” Oklahoma! first bowed in the old-fashioned days of 1943 Broadway, when Ado Annie was covertly described as everything from “high energy” to “ever-willing.” In today’s terminology, Ado Annie might be described as a liberated young woman with healthy libido – and that, Stroker said, is what attracted her to the role.
“One of my first draws to the part was the chance to play someone who is so unapologetic and so free,” said Stoker, who was paralyzed in a car accident at age 2. “I think it allows audiences to see that someone in a chair can also be unapologetic and free. Everyone has their ideas of what someone in a chair must be like – and to break that stereotype is very cool to me.
“Annie is very, very close to my heart, and it’s been such a thrill to play her on Broadway and to make her into a real person who is curious and adventurous and never apologizes for who she is. It’s given me a lot of confidence and a lot of joy by embodying her every night.”
Stroker, who many years ago competed as a professional wheelchair racer in Colorado, made her national TV debut when she won a guest spot on Fox’s hit show Glee by competing in its talent competition called The Glee Project. One of her Glee castmate was Denver’s own Super Girl, Melissa Benoist. (“She’s just so fantastic, and such a gifted artist,” Stroker said of her.)
Stroker first made Broadway history when she originated the role of Anna in Deaf West’s acclaimed 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. That was a show, she said, “that completely changed my life. I made my Broadway debut in that show, and I had the opportunity to learn and perform in American Sign Language. That was one of the most impactful experiences of my life because my motto has always been, ‘Turn your limitations into your opportunities’ – and that’s exactly what that show did.”
Another seminal role was being asked to play disability-rights advocate Judy Heumann last year on Comedy Central’s truth-in-advertising TV series Drunk History. Heumann, who has polio and was denied the right to attend school at age 5 because she was considered “a fire hazard,” largely started the national disability protest movement across the United States in 1977. Heumann was appointed by President Obama as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights in 2010.
“Those moments are not in the history books,” Stroker said, “so it was a thrill to learn more about my community’s history and what Judy has done for us. It’s really exciting and essential, I think, to my growth as a human being. And now we are friends.”
Stroker has been a co-chair of Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of New York City. She co-founded Be More Heroic, an anti-bullying campaign that tours the country connecting with thousands of students each year. She’s led theatre workshops for South African women and children affected by HIV and AIDS.
And she can’t wait to appear at Friday’s benefit for Easterseals Colorado, which for a century has been a vital resource to people with disabilities, older adults and caregivers across the state.
“Easterseals means so much to me because they are dedicated to helping the world see people with disabilities differently and break stereotypes and create exposure – and that goes exactly along with my mission as well,” she said.
Easterseals Colorado’s annual ‘Season of Lights’ gala
- What: Fundraising concert featuring Ali Stroker
- Where: Hyatt Regency Denver Colorado Convention Center, 650 15th (at California Street)
- Activities include: Cocktail reception, silent auction, dinner, presentation of awards, musical performances and dancing
- Tickets: Start at $250 at ejoinme.org
Online bonus: More of the conversation
Here are more excerpts from John Moore’s conversation with Ali Stroker:
John Moore: There’s history, and then there is history. Your winning the Tony Award was history. Have you even tried to put into perspective yet?
Ali Stroker: It’s funny; it’s one of those things that hits me on certain days and then other days I’m like, “Wait, did that happen?” Now that I’ve had a little bit of distance from it, I can say it really was one of the most amazing moments of my life.
John Moore: Have you heard from people since the Tony Award who say your example is changing more lives?
Ali Stroker: I hear from people all the time. There was this one amazing story on the Today Show that said there were a lot of young people with disabilities watching the Tony Awards. They showed a beautiful video of this kid who was watching and he said to his mom, “That’s me.” That touched me because representation really matters for young people, and to be able to represent my community in this arena is very special to me.
John Moore: Are you aware of Denver’s Phamaly Theatre Company?
Ali Stroker: I am. I’ve heard a lot about them.
John Moore: For 30 years, Phamaly has not only been creating performance opportunities for actors with disabilities; it has been changing the perceptions of those who sit in their audiences. What do you want to say about the existence of a company like that?
Ali Stoker: First of all, I’m dying to see something of theirs, and I hope to do that very soon. What they are doing is so essential to our progress as a country. I just love their mission and the kind of work they do. And you’re right: They don’t do it just to create performance opportunities. They do it to tell more interesting stories – and that, to me, is right on the nose.
John Moore: What are people in for who come to see your concert on Friday night?
Ali Stroker: I think It’ll be so special. I’m going to get to sing other things and share stories I have not shared with the world yet. I hope people want to come out and connect and enjoy a beautiful night celebrating the holiday season.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theatre critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.