Here’s Hoping You’ll Be Hearing about Ali Stroker From More Than Just Me

1 Aug

Perhaps the worst thing about the arts—at the least the performing arts—is how they’ve ended up as the most powerful perpetuator of lookism around the world. From colorism to ableism to fat-shaming, mass media bears a remarkable responsibility for ignoring diverse beauty standards and marginalizing various body types. But the best thing about the arts is the way they dodge objectivity, remaining open to reinterpretation forever and ever.

When you hear “I’m Just A Girl That Can’t Say No” sung by a waif, it sounds like the mid-century acceptance of sexiness in women as long they stay coquettish – that is to say, naïve. When it’s sung by a strong-voiced but conventionally attractive woman, it becomes the anthem of the whore – a classic character whom tradition keeps in high demand but never in high regard. And when it’s sung by a woman in a wheelchair—who is the first actor in a wheelchair ever to make it to Broadway—it’s nothing but empowerment, a sonorous TAKE THAT! to our traditions that automatically deem physically disabled women off the dating market while behind the scenes rendering them seven times more like to be sexually abused in the United States than the general population.

When I read Ali Stroker had become the first actor using wheelchair on a Broadway stage in 2015’s Spring Awakening, my first reaction was, “Wait, what?” The very first full-length musical I attended was a production of Guys and Dolls at my local high school, with a classmate’s brother in the lead as Sky Masterson. He used a wheelchair—I cannot say if it was temporarily or permanently—and the image was presented so matter-of-factly that it imbued in me a deep-seated sense of “Well, why not?” When it comes to possibilities, seeing is believing. But visions can be deceiving and I was deceived into assuming this sort of thing happened all the time. It did not. In 2019, Stroker became the first actor with a physical disability to win a Tony in Daniel Fish’s dark revival of Oklahoma! (This highly acclaimed version originated at Bard College, my alma mater.)

Stroker has spoken at length about what equal opportunity and accessibility in acting truly means. She’s called out Hollywood and Broadway’s addiction to choosing only non-disabled actors to portray disabled characters like Franklin Roosevelt and Helen Keller, likening it to blackface. This week she spoke with the ACLU about the importance of integrating her disability and her wheelchair into any character she portrays without the need for explaining the disability.

I highlight this now because Broadway is about to re-open for the first time since the pandemic and because the worst thing we could do after her achievements is to let Stroker become a one-hit wonder and remain a novelty. Marlee Matlin made history in film and television as the first widely known Deaf actor in the 1980s and 90s, and Google reveals she continues to be the only one of such renown.

Of course, long-lasting change has to be structural. As both Stroker and Anthony Ramos of Hamilton have pointed out, people long marginalized in the arts must be represented not only on the stage but in the writers’ rooms and board rooms if the power imbalance is ever to be corrected and career opportunities for all are to be really, truly equal. That’s why I hope you continue to hear about Ali Stroker and many, many other physically disabled actors until the distinction no longer matters because there are too many to count.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: