Anyone watching the Tony Awards from the official media room got a clear sign that history was apt to be made: For the first time in recent memory, the small stage where winners would be taken for brief Q&As had a wheelchair ramp.
That logistical addition to the room inside the 3 West Club across the street from Radio City Music Hall preceded Ali Stroker’s win for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for her turn in Oklahoma. The victory by the Oklahoma star, who has been paralyzed since a car accident when she was 2 years old, was the first Tony to go to an actor in a wheelchair.
Stroker arrived and left the room to loud applause. The 31-year-old, who has also starred in TV’s The Glee Project and Ten Days in the Valley, recalled the reactions she has gotten from her performance as Ado Annie — and its impact. “It’s cool with social media, you’re able to connect with a lot of people,” she said. “I’ve just heard from a lot of young, aspiring performers, actors, singers and musicians how exciting it is to see someone in a chair on Broadway and on television. And how it motivates them and inspires them to keep going.”
Elaborating on the milestone, she went on, “It makes me feel amazing to me to be that to them because I did not have that as an 11-year-old girl pursuing my dream. I was looking to see who had made it who had a disability or was in a wheelchair. And there was nobody.”
Collaborating with Oklahoma‘s director, choreographer and creative team proved to be another part of the breakthrough. “We talked a lot about what could work throughout the show in terms of the character. This girl has relationships with two different guys: How were we going to physicalize that?” she recalled. Collaborating with people who had “never worked with someone in a chair” has been important but also “really fun,”
Asked what she would do to improve accessibility more broadly in the theater world, Stroker said, “The theaters and the house where the audience comes in, that is all made accessible, but backstage is not. So I would ask theater owners and producers to really look into making the backstage area accessible.”
As triumphant as Stroker’s moment was during the CBS telecast, her acceptance speech went a little long and the play-off music drowned out the final part of her remarks. She said she thanked her partner, David, who “reminds me every day to let my light shine.”
Here is Stroker’s on-stage acceptance speech: