Ali Stroker is no stranger to rewriting history. With her 2015 Broadway debut in “Spring Awakening,” she became the first actor in a wheelchair to perform on the Great White Way. Three years later, she’s back onstage in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” as Ado Annie, the flirtatious local who splits her affections between a resident cowboy and a peddler from out of town. Stroker, who earned a nod for featured actress in a musical, is making her mark again — this time as the first wheelchair-bound performer to be nominated for a Tony Award.
How is this production different from previous iterations?
“Oklahoma!” is such an American classic, and what I think is so special about this production is that [director] Daniel Fish was really determined to bring out some of the darker, more honest, truthful parts of the story. The book and the lyrics — it’s all right there. And that’s resonating with audiences in 2019.
The Circle in the Square is such an intimate theater. What’s that like?
It’s really challenging as an actor because I’m trying to check in whether the audience likes it or not. But what I’ve learned is that part of this production is uncomfortable. To be uncomfortable with the audience instead of resisting [being uncomfortable] is part of the truth of this story. As performers, you can’t control how an audience is going to receive it. That’s such a lesson in doing the show every night.
How does your chair feed into your character development?
Ado Annie has these relationships with different guys, so what do those physical intimate moments look like? If I’m sitting and my partner is standing, how
do you become close? How do you get close when you kiss somebody? And then, once we’re in the rehearsal room, we just try different things. [Choreographer
John Heginbotham and Fish] were so open and allowed me to lead in certain ways because the truth is that I live it, so I know it the best. I’m also always open to suggestions and questions — “is this possible, is that possible?” It was always just so collaborative.
In the theater community, diversity and unconventionality are taking a front seat in casting. How do you see it?
There’s a diversity movement happening. Shows are looking for people who are different than what the original casting choice was, and I think that’s really exciting. I think there’s a responsibility to the actors to not just lean on the fact that they’re diverse, but that you are making choices for that person and that character. It’s about staying true to the text but bringing in everything that you know and everything that is your truth as someone who is diverse living in this world now.
What excites you about telling this story?
This production is a revival that — in my opinion — is unlike any revival that’s ever been done. This show doesn’t necessarily follow all the rules. And that is so who I am. It’s something that has been done before, but you’re doing it in your own original way. There have been lots of people in wheelchairs before me, but I’m doing it my way.
You’ve made a lot of history with your nomination; was that always the intention?
I was taught early on that you’re never going to have control over what people think of you. And I think part of how I’ve survived and succeeded is not worrying what other people thought. In some ways, the Tonys are other people’s opinion. I never set out on this journey to win or be nominated, but to have that group of people saying, “Yes, this is really good work,” is so amazing and supportive.
Things You Didn’t Know About Ali Stroker
AGE: 31 HOMETOWN: Ridgewood, N.J. FIRST ROLE SHE EVER PLAYED: Annie SHOW SHE’S DYING TO SEE: “To Kill a Mockingbird” DREAM AUDIENCE MEMBER: Dolly Parton HER MANTRA: “Make your limitations your opportunities”