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Singer and actress Ali Stroker speaks on disability representation on Broadway at AccessAbility Center event

<h5>Ali Stroker, the Tony Award-winning actor and first wheelchair user to star on Broadway, at the Lewis Art complex on March 28, 2022.</h5>
<h6>Jon Sweeney / Lewis Center for the Arts.</h6>
Ali Stroker, the Tony Award-winning actor and first wheelchair user to star on Broadway, at the Lewis Art complex on March 28, 2022.
Jon Sweeney / Lewis Center for the Arts.

Tony Award-winning actress Ali Stroker performed an original show and discussed her experience navigating the professional musical theater world as a person with a disability at an AccessAbility Center event on Monday, March 28.

Stroker has performed at the Kennedy Center, New York’s Carnegie Hall, and the Lincoln Center, and had television appearances on “Glee,” “Ozark,” and “Blue Bloods.” She is often recognized for making show business history as the first wheelchair user to perform on Broadway — an accolade she earned for originating the role of Anna in the Deaf West Theatre’s 2015 revival of “Spring Awakening.” Four years later, she became the first wheelchair user to be nominated for, and win, a Tony for her portrayal of Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!”

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During Monday’s program, Stroker presented an original show, which interweaves personal experiences with five musical numbers: “Be A Lion,” “Natural Woman,” “True Colors,” “Can’t Say No,” and “Here’s Where I Stand.”

Reflecting on advocacy, inclusion, and the importance of representation throughout, Stroker shared what she referred to as her disability “origin story,” recounting the car accident that resulted in her spinal injury and subsequent paralysis at two years old. Stroker also spoke about the incident that first sparked her passion for performance as a child — when she starred as Annie in a backyard production of the musical to the delight of neighbors and friends in the audience.

“Everyone was staring at me, but it wasn’t because I was in a wheelchair. It was because I was a star,” Stroker said during the event, adding that she has been “hooked ever since.”

In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Stroker discussed what the original show she presented at the AccessAbility Center event, titled “Turning Limitations into Opportunities,” means to her.

“In many ways I talk about the ‘hits,’ the good things that have happened in my life and the highlights,” she said. “But [it’s] really important to me to also be real with what society has placed on disabled people.”

“We need to start conversations,” she continued, “and this is a show where, in addition to the speaking and signing, we’re going to have a conversation.”

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She went on to emphasize the significance of its name. According to the actress, “turning limitations into opportunities” has long served as a personal motto.

“‘Turning limitations into opportunities’ has meant different things to me in different seasons of my life, depending on what I’m going through,” she said.

She clarified, however, that the title refers to “limitations” imposed by an often-inaccessible society, not the differences in physical ability she experiences as a paralyzed woman.

“People and society assume that my limitation is my chair, but it’s actually the limitations that society has placed on me,” she said. “[The show is about being] able to identify those and then find the opportunities to flip those.”

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The event concluded with a Q&A moderated by AccessAbility Center Student Fellows Katie Heinzer ’22 and Harper Chambers ’24.

Heinzer previously served as a podcast editor for the ‘Prince.’

The program was a product of over two years of planning on the part of Heinzer, Chambers, and their co-Fellows Naomi Hess ’22 and Priyanka Aiyer ’23. It all began in the fall of 2019 when Hess traveled with her residential college to see “Oklahoma!” on Broadway; at the time, Stroker was cast in the role of Ado Annie.

Hess is a News Editor Emerita at the ‘Prince.’

After the show, Stroker’s father — who according to the actress attended a whopping 76 showings of “Oklahoma!” — approached Hess and offered to introduce her to Stroker. 

“I was able to talk to Ali for maybe 10 minutes, and we talked about Princeton. It was a really wonderful conversation,” Hess said.

In January 2020, Hess brought the idea of inviting Stroker to speak at the University to her boss, Director for Disability Services Liz Erickson.

With the help of Administrative Assistant for Disability Services Jennifer Miller and director of the Program in Music Theater Stacy Wolf, the event was initially going to be held on April 21, 2020. But obviously the pandemic got in the way.

“We pulled it together pretty quickly until it didn’t happen because of COVID. A lot of the plans that are coming to fruition now are ideas that we’ve been holding onto for two years,” Heinzer said, adding that the event has been scheduled and then pushed back every semester since.

“She’s such a good performer and such a presence that the whole team felt we wanted it to be in person,” Heinzer continued. “I think the visibility of seeing Ali Stroker who uses a wheelchair on stage would be a big image to have at Princeton.”

The event, which was co-sponsored by the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, Lewis Center for the Arts, Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, and the Graduate School, was held at 6:00 p.m. in the Donald G. Drapkin Studio in the Lewis Arts complex.

Tess Weinreich is a news staff writer and features contributor for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at tw7353@princeton.edu.

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