NEW YORK — Broadway star Ali Stroker says she always felt like her “most powerful self” when onstage, and now as the co-author of a new book for kids, she’s trying to empower others.
Stroker teamed up with her friend and middle grade author Stacy Davidowitz and set out to create a familiar character: a young girl in a wheelchair named Nat who wants to perform in a local musical.
“The Chance to Fly” — published this week — was a way for the actor to share her own experiences as a person with a disability and big dreams. Stroker, who has used a wheelchair since a car accident paralyzed her when she was 2, says she wanted to help kids with disabilities recognize themselves in the book.
Even before winning a Tony in 2019 for her role in the Broadway revival of “Oklahoma,” Stroker served as an example of a person who doesn’t let limitations prevent her from achieving her goals. She made history as the first actor in a wheelchair to win the award and dedicated it to all kids with disabilities waiting to be represented in theater.
Stroker said she was driven to write “The Chance to Fly” because she didn’t have any stories like it to read when she was in middle school. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Stroker talked about the challenges of writing a story similar to her own, representing people with disabilities, and naming her wheelchair.
AP: Nat loves musicals and performing. How did performing make you feel at her age?
Stroker: On stage, I felt like I was my most powerful self because people were looking at me and staring at me. But it wasn’t just because of my wheelchair and it was a safe place to be different kinds of people. For a long time, I felt like I had to be, you know, like happy and OK and inspirational for other people. And when I was on stage and I was playing a character who was going through something, I got to express all those other things that were living inside of me. Writing this book as well and going back to those really vulnerable, scary, first time moments was so healing. And I think teenage Ali was just really brave and really tough. And I feel so proud of where I am now.
AP: Nat sometimes feels embarrassed about her wheelchair. Was it hard to write about that?
Stroker: It was a challenge for me to go back to those moments. One of the ways I describe it is just like you feel like you’re like so hot and you feel like people are looking at you for the thing that you are most self-conscious of, and maybe the thing that you have the most shame about. And it’s just overwhelming. But I wanted to write it because whether you have a disability or you’re in a wheelchair or not, you have those self-conscious and really difficult moments in your life, especially as a teenager, when you just want to be like everybody else, but you’re not like everybody else. And the reason it needed to exist in this book is because I want young people to know that they’re not alone in feeling like that.
AP: The adult directors of the show cast Nat but tell her she doesn’t have to dance, which upsets her because doesn’t want special treatment. Why was that important to include?
Stroker: What’s so beautiful about living with a disability is that your creativity to solve problems is so accessible. It’s so heightened because this is a part of your everyday life. Nat is really disappointed, but then she goes away and she shares with her friends, her peers what’s going on, and then they offer to help her and they are going to not wait for the adults to solve the problem, but they are going to come up with the answer. That’s an ideal situation when you can ask your home team, the people that you trust the most for help, and then you can come up with a creative solution.
AP: There are more opportunities recently for stories about people with disabilities. Is that encouraging?
Stroker: I really believe that one of the shifts that needs to happen is that actors with disabilities are cast in roles where the storyline is not about disability and that we are able to just exist in stories and have disabilities and have that not be the storyline. Because that’s one of the ways in which I believe some of the change can happen. I think that we are in a diversity movement, but oftentimes disability is not included in that movement because there is an opinion that in order for disability to be included, it has to be addressed. And I am here to say that you can cast somebody — like what happened with “Oklahoma.” I can play Ado Annie — my wheelchair is never addressed in the entire show. And yet we get to live this experience with a character who has a disability and we get to watch it and we are there with it, but we don’t have to talk about it.
AP: Nat names her wheelchair Peaches. Have you named your chairs?
Stroker: It’s just this really beautiful way to personalize this thing. You know, my wheelchair is a part of my every moment, every day my wheelchair sits right next to my bed when I sleep. My wheelchair is my access to the world. And I like to have a good relationship with my chairs. And so a really fun way of doing that is for me to name them. And sometimes there are days that you just want to use those names instead of talking about your equipment. My last chair was Twilight Flake — that was her racing name. She had sparkles!