On Sunday evening, Ali Stroker called her Tony nomination “a dream come true.” A few hours later, she won, and in doing so, the “Oklahoma!” performer made history as the first actor who uses a wheelchair to receive a Tony Award.
The audience at New York’s Radio City Music Hall gave Stroker a rousing ovation when her name was announced as best supporting actress in a musical for her role in the dark revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.
She then came out onto the stage and, with a voice full of emotion, dedicated the award to “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 in this arena.”
“You are,” she declared.
The 31-year-old New Jersey native, who has been paralyzed since age 2 because of a car crash, began performing in musical theater at 7 (she played the title role in a friend’s backyard production of the musical “Annie”), the Associated Press reported.
“When I began to sing, I just felt so free. There was like no limitation,” she told the wire service. “I was used to people staring at me, being a little girl in a wheelchair. But being onstage and the way people were looking at me, it was so different. And I knew that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Stroker acted and sang throughout her childhood, attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and would go on to have roles in television’s “Glee” and theater productions such as “Promises, Promises.” In 2015, she performed in “Spring Awakening,” making her the first person in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway.
Stroker’s turn as Ado Annie in Daniel Fish’s revival of “Oklahoma!” earned her the history-making Tony award, and on Sunday, her words rang out beyond Radio City Music Hall. One mother in Kentucky tweeted a video of her 6-year-old, who uses a wheelchair, watching Stroker’s speech and exclaiming, “That’s me!”
In her speech, Stroker thanked her “best friends who have held my hands and pulled me around New York City for years, helping me,” and her parents “for teaching me to use my gifts to help people."
After her win, the actress appeared before journalists backstage, who asked her how to make Broadway and theater more accessible.
“The theaters for the house, where all the audience comes in, that is all made accessible to patrons,” Stroker said. “But the backstages are not. So I would ask theater owners and producers to really look into how they can begin to make the backstage accessible, so performers with disabilities can get around.”