People (USA)




The first wheelchair­using actress to win a Tony talks about breaking barriers and loving her craft

On June 9, when Broadway star Ali Stroker became the first actor in a wheelchair ever to win a Tony Award, she was overcome with emotion. “This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, a limitation, a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represente­d in this arena. You are!” said Stroker. But the actress, who has been paralyzed from the waist down for three decades, felt proud of more than just breaking barriers. “What I liked about winning was that it didn’t just feel like, ‘Oh, you did something to overcome being in a chair,’ ” she says. “It was actually, ‘We’re recognizin­g you for being at the highest level of your field.’ That’s what I’ve always wanted.”

The vivacious 32-year-old—who’s earning rave reviews and attention well beyond Broadway for her role as flirty Ado Annie in the latest revival of Rogers & Hammerstei­n’s Oklahoma!—makes singing and dancing in a wheelchair look easy. Offstage, Stroker’s life has been anything but. Raised in Ridgewood, N.J., by her teacher father, Jim, and mother Jody, she was just 2 when she, her mom and her brother Jake, then 4, were involved in a head-on car collision. Ali was paralyzed from the upper part of her chest down; Jake survived a traumatic brain injury

that also caused a long-term disability. “One day you’re living one life, and the next you’re living another life,” Stroker says of the accident. “My mom says I was born so alert and happy, just a very content kid. But after I got injured, I really turned inward and shut off the world.”

Until she discovered the joy of theater. When she was 7, Stroker’s older friend and neighbor Rachel Antonoff (now a fashion designer) cast her in a backyard play. “I still remember the first time I was onstage,” Stroker says with a big grin. “Out on the deck, in front of probably 30 people sitting in the flower beds. It was a moment of feeling really powerful and in charge and so different than how I felt in my skin anywhere else in the world,” she says. “People were watching me and looking at me, but I was in control of why they were looking. And then I could sing, so I was getting a lot of positive attention for that.”

She began taking voice lessons and found a passion for performing. “It was so fun because there were so many activities I couldn’t do,” she says. “With singing, there was no limitation or restrictio­n.” Still, not seeing anyone else like her on TV or movie screens left an impression. “It sends a strong message, not being able to find yourself,” she says. “The disabled community is the largest minority community in the world, and most of the time it’s underrepre­sented. What are people afraid of ?” She went on to study drama at New York University, attracted to the crowded energy of the city. “When I looked at colleges, I would tour the campus, and I felt like kids were staring at me. At NYU nobody stared, because I wasn’t the weirdest thing they’d seen on the street at all,” she says. Navigating New York City can be frustratin­g. “I’ve found myself in the rain with no cabs stopping for me and just cursing in the street, thinking, ‘This is so unfair,’ ” she says. “But being here has given me the confidence to try a new city sometime—i just know I can manage

it, because I managed New York.”

Stroker found success in musicals

such as the Deaf West theater company’s version of Spring Awakening. While starring in that production in 2015, she reconnecte­d with David Perlow, 33, a

theater director and actor whom she first met at college, and they fell in love. “As a little girl I think I was always afraid of not finding someone who would choose this,” she says of her disability. She calls boyfriend Perlow “just gorgeous,” and adds, “He was so cute at the Tony Awards, asking me which side I wanted him on for photos. I look at those pictures and am like, ‘That’s my dream. To find this partner, who wants to be by my side and is so proud of me.’ ”

As for Stroker’s next moves, she says she’d love to return to TV (she appeared on 12 episodes of the reality show The Glee Project in 2012) but also wants to educate people about

‘To arrive at this place in my career and to have this relationsh­ip— it just means so much to me’ —ON HER ROMANCE WITH BOYFRIEND DAVID PERLOW

life with a disability. “I like to reach children before [difference] becomes fear,” she says of giving talks at elementary schools. “A lot of parents teach their kids, ‘Don’t ask, don’t stare, don’t point.’ All of that has good intentions, but what it ends up creating is fear.” Still, these days she realizes that if she’s being stared at, it’s usually because a theater fan is geeking out. “It’s overwhelmi­ng in places,” she admits of the newfound attention. “As a kid, I was always stared at because of my chair. So to flip that on its head and be stared at by people who know my work—it’s just this very powerful experience.”

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