Oklahoma! actress Ali Stroker has become the first wheelchair user to be nominated for, and win, a Tony Award.
She won best featured actress for her role as Ado Annie in the Broadway play.
She said the win was for “every kid” with a “disability, a limitation or a challenge who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena”.
However, a ramp had not been built to the stage, forcing Stroker to enter from the wings rather than from the audience with her fellow castmates.
The New Jersey native who lost the use of her legs in a car accident when she was two years old, was still backstage, fresh from performing Oklahoma! song I Cain’t Say No, when her category was announced.
Receiving the award to a standing ovation, she thanked the musical’s cast, and “my best friends, who have held my hands and pulled me around New York City for years helping me”.
After her win, Stroker told reporters that Broadway theatres are generally accessible to audience members with disabilities, but backstage areas are not.
“I would ask theatre owners and producers to really look into how they can begin to make the backstage accessible so that performers with disabilities can get around,” she said.
‘Looking for role models’
Stroker, who first rose to prominence in The Glee Project in 2012, later became the first actor in a wheelchair in Broadway history, playing Anna in a revival of the musical Spring Awakening. in 2015.
“It’s pretty unbelievable that that’s the case,” she told Mashable at the time.
Her Tony win marks a step forward in disability representation within the arts, where disabled characters have traditionally been played by able-bodied actors, often to critical acclaim.
Speaking at the awards, Stroker commented upon the lack of disabled role models on stage when she was growing up.
“I know exactly what it’s like to be looking for someone who looks like me.
“It makes me feel amazing to be able to be that for them,” Stroker said, “because I didn’t have that as an 11-year-old girl pursuing this dream.”
Upon taking the role of the sensual, all-singing, all-dancing Annie in Oklahoma!, she discussed the importance that her visibility in the musical held in altering perceptions of disability.
“I think that this role has come at such an important time in my life both as an actress and as a person,” Stroker told Vulture, “because I feel like I have arrived in my sexual power, meaning that I feel the most confident I’ve ever felt in my life. Especially growing up and as a teenager, I was always looking for role models who were in chairs.”
“I always felt like a sexual person – I just didn’t know how to always portray that, and I never really was sure, as a kid, if being in a wheelchair could be sexy. So, to arrive at this point is so exciting – more than exciting, it’s like a relief in many ways. Because finally we get to see someone who is so real.”
Analysis by Alex Taylor, entertainment reporter
Last summer, as a wheelchair user myself, I fronted a documentary on nightclub accessibility in Ibiza.
My experiences as a clubber there – warmly received but facing accessibility challenges as an apparent exception to the norm – mirror Ali Stroker’s Tony Award-winning experience last night.
Her victory is no doubt a landmark moment. Unlike when, in 2015, she made novelty headlines as the first wheelchair user to appear on Broadway, on this occasion she is being celebrated specifically for her acting talent.
Her success marks a broader recent representative trend to finally feature disabled talent in substantive roles on screen. This includes Ryan O’Connell, the lead actor in Netflix’s Special, who, like his character, has cerebral palsy.
But, as Stroker’s acceptance speech made pointedly clear, the glaring lack of disabled role models within public life, is something the industry, and wider society, must recognise and take responsibility for.
The failure of the award organisers to ensure the award stage offered even basic accessibility, symbolised how little disability is thought of. It meant that, on a night of personal career success, Stroker found herself honoured but still not catered to as an equal.
As an actress she is an award-winner, to the media a trailblazer, to many disabled youngsters a role model. But her success marks only the beginning of the fight to change attitudes.