By Albert J. Rizzi
This year’s Tony Award nominations are out and for the first time since the Tony’s have been given out, a person who happens to have a disability is a nominee. Congratulations to Ali Stroker for her nomination in the category for Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical.
In the revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Stroker’s portrayal of Ado Annie, a “girl who can’t say no” -- a flirty young woman who chases (and likes to be chased by) young men is performed with an entirely new “roll” to it. The plot of the play is the same and the songs are still some of the best in musical theater history. Only this time, Ado Annie is doing her chasing from a wheelchair.
Stroker has a mobility impairment that has her “rolling” across stage in a wheel chair. When she was a kid, she was in a car accident resulting in her being paralyzed from the chest down. After seeing the musical Annie as a youngster, she decided that singing and acting was what she wanted to do. Ultimately, she found success, appearing on the television show Glee and the Broadway revival of the play, Spring Awakening.
This is an important step for Stroker’s career and she deserves many accolades—for her talent as an actress and a singer, and not to mention the way she leverages her ability as someone who just happens to have a disability. It goes without saying, but we must recognize that this is a historical moment in theater and in the disability movement overall.
Just as it is important to see people of color or those representing the LGTBQ community authentically on stage and screen, it is also important to see people across the entire Ability spectrum, acting in a role that is elevated to Tony consideration because of the authenticity of the actor. There are actors who are blind, deaf, and paralyzed who are extremely capable of portraying characters and others written into scripts who are also members of the disability community. All one needs to do is suspend their sense of disbelief and the possibilities are endless, as endless as they have become thanks to musicals like Hamilton, and now a tried and true classic, Oklahoma!. I, for one, will continue to applaud these authentic representations, when roles go to actors with talent, and who also just happen to have a different way of rolling through life as it were.
Stroker’s nomination is different and important for another reason. For the first time, young aspiring actors and theater lovers with disabilities can look to Stroker’s accomplishments, identifying with her ability, and with the access to all things possible, dream of being recognized for excellence in an iconic musical theater role or something new and progressive just as Hamilton has been for musical theater .
Instead of accepting low expectations and imposed limitations forced upon us by society due to “dis” labeling of Ability, actors of all ages and Ability now have a role model to draw inspiration from. Thanks to Stroker’s drive, determination, and accomplishments, it’s easier for individuals with a disability, and society in general, to expect that the magic of theater is not just for some to make, but for everyone and anyone with a true calling and talent for acting.
Thinking creatively about casting also adds new depth to roles that we have seen before. It adds nuance the motivations of the character and other character’s in the play that had not been conceived simply because a show was cast traditionally.
We live in a world where Hamilton has our Founding Fathers and Mothers representing the entire spectrum of color. Now, with this revival of Oklahoma!, generations of Ado Annies and other featured roles in theater will include Ability authentically in addition to talent. I am so moved and compelled to “act” on all of this and have half a mind to go down to the Gateway Playhouse here in Bellport to reprise my featured role as Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie! Only this time, my Albert Peterson will be blind and much more fascinating! To quote one of the songs from that musical, “Everything is Rosie” for theatergoers on Broadway. Remember my peers from the disability community, if you can make it here, New York that is, you can make it anywhere!