Ali Stroker, first actress in a wheelchair on Broadway, brightens Montclair!
Ali Stroker came to Montclair State University on Thursday to meet her father, Jim. The duo spoke to Dr. Robert Gilbert’s class about mindfulness and gratitude. Ali sang “Be a Lion” and “True Colors.” Every student sat in awe as she belted out the tunes.
In 2015, Stroker became the first wheelchair bound actress to appear on Broadway in Deaf West’s revival of Spring Awakening. Her journey has not been easy, but her dedication and passion gave her the opportunity to do what no one else has. She keeps her focus by following a simple code: be brave, be kind and give back.
Ridgewood coach and teacher Jim Stroker was in the middle of teaching his class about the value of character when his colleague burst into the classroom. What he said changed Jim’s life: “Come quick, there’s been an accident.” Jim’s wife, son and daughter – Jodi, Jake and Ali – had been in a car accident directly outside of the school.
The injuries were extensive. Jake came out of a coma seven days later with an IQ of 73. Ali, at two years old, had been paralyzed from the chest down. She would no longer have control or feeling in 88 percent of her body.
“I came home from the hospital to a new life,” said Stroker. She had to learn how to be independent, how to get from point A to point B, how to get out of bed in the morning. With the support of her family and her community, Stroker started her new life in a wheelchair.
“Fifteen percent of my disability is physical. But 85 of it is mental,” Stroker explained to the classroom. Stroker struggled with her sense of self-worth. She looked in the mirror and hated how her legs looked, because she just wanted to be able to do what others kids her age were doing. But her wheelchair made her different. So, instead of hating what made her different, Stroker focused on what she could control. She strengthened her arms and her attitude. Being different was what made Stroker so successful in her personal and professional life.
Around age six, Stroker discovered musical theater. She called this as “a turning point.” Stroker said that before musical theater said she just felt like “that girl in a wheelchair” who people stared at. She could be any character she wanted to be on stage. By 11, Stroker performed professionally. “In singing,” she said, “there were no limitations for me.”
She applied to New York University’s Tisch Performing Arts School and was met with hesitation because of the dance classes the program required. The teachers lacked confidence in Stroker’s abilities. “My dad and I looked at each other and smiled when they questioned my ability to dance,” said Stroker.
Stroker did dance; she just danced differently. She was accepted to the school. At 19, Stroker was maneuvering the Manhattan streets by herself. She spent Ballet I observing. She perfected her arms, focused on her facial expressions and slowly began to translate the moves into her own. She created her own pirouette by lifting herself up with her arms and balancing her chair on two wheels. Stroker became the first wheelchair-bound actress to graduate from the Tisch School at NYU in 2009.
“I am so lucky to be here,” said Stroker.
“Impossible is not a declaration, it’s a dare. It’s a really long word thrown around by really small people,” Jim Stroker added.
A few years after the accident, Jim took a coaching class with Dr. Gilbert. Dr. Gilbert’s class was full of emotional, inspirational stories and speeches that moved Jim to develop his own philosophy. He credited Gilbert with his success in public speaking, teaching and life.
“He’s part of my team,” said Jim Stroker. He expressed an enormous amount of gratitude towards Gilbert, which Ali Stroker mirrored. She also attributed much of her success to her team. Her team consists of her family, her therapist, her manager and others that have helped her achieve her goals. Her brother Jake, also injured in the accident, played varsity basketball and golf in high school. He graduated from Farleigh Dickinson University with honors.