Ali Stroker: Staging an Encore

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Ali Stroker sits on stage in a wheelchair smiling wearing a pink and red flroral dress

By Brady Rhoades

Don’t be surprised if one day you see Tony Award-winning actress and singer Alyson “Ali” Stroker on the Big Screen, and don’t think twice if you’re smiling.

“I want to create content that makes people feel good,” Stroker, who won a historic Tony for portraying Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, told DIVERSEability Magazine. “There’s a lot of stress and anxiety in the world and we as artists have the ability to change that.”

Stroker is the first actress in a wheelchair to win a Tony. It happened on June 9 of this year. Hearts fluttered, heartbeats quickened, tears flowed and…

“It’s been unbelievable,” said the 32-year-old native of New Jersey. “For the disabled community it’s really cool to see yourself represented in this arena.”

Stroker, paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident when she was 2, is a role model for the disabled. While she avoids sermonizing, she doesn’t hesitate to talk about the virtues of work, perseverance and independence.

“Putting your destiny in someone else’s hands is never going to make you feel powerful,” she said. “I’m more inclined to tell disabled people to create communities of people you trust, and then create your own work. It’s better to do that than to talk.”

And for all young artists, she has a question.

“What do you want to create?”

That’s a core challenge for Stroker. It’s at the heart of being an artist.

It’s what she asked herself as a child (“I sang all day, every day”) and what she asks herself as an adult, and as a star.

Willie Geist, Craig Melvin, Savannah Guthrie and Ali Stroker on the Today Show.
Willie Geist, Craig Melvin, Savannah Guthrie and Ali Stroker on the Today Show. 2019 NATHAN CONGLETON/NBC
TOC: PHOTO BY WALTER MCBRIDE/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES
But it should be stressed that Stroker earned the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for just one reason: she’s really, really good.

“It didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, you did something to overcome being in a chair,’” she said. “It was actually, ‘We’re recognizing you for being at the highest level of your field.’ That’s what I’ve always wanted.”

Stroker was born with a passion for the stage, but it took hold—with the strength of a farmer—when she was 7, in a backyard production of Annie.

“When I got on stage, it was the first time that I felt powerful,” Stroker said. “I was used to people staring at me, but they were staring at me because I was in a wheelchair. And when I was on stage, they were staring at me because I was the star… I particularly feel that I can’t hide on stage and that’s a gift.”

It’s fitting that, 25 years later, she’s wowing crowds on Broadway as Ado Annie, who is so unwilling be anything but herself that her catch-line is, “How can I be what I ain’t?”

“She doesn’t ever apologize for who she is,” Stroker said. “She doesn’t have any shame about who she is. Her wants, her desires, are so clear.”

Ali Stroker winner Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! at The 73rd Annual Tony Awards, broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York, Sunday, June 9 on the CBS Television Network. JOHN P. FILO/CBS ©2019 CBS BROADCASTING INC.
Ali Stroker winner Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at The 73rd Annual Tony Awards. JOHN P. FILO/CBS ©2019 CBS BROADCASTING INC.

Alyson Mackenzie Stroker was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey. She studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and earned a bachelor of fine arts. She was the first actress in a wheelchair to earn a degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

After graduation, she auditioned for The Glee Project at a casting call in New York City. Stroker is a Mezzo-Soprano but because she is paralyzed, she cannot engage her diaphragm, so she created her own singing techniques “to develop resonance so my voice would carry.”

Stroker guest-starred on Season 4 of Glee, then her agent sent her to audition for a Deaf West Theatre production of Spring Awakening.

In 2015, Stroker won the role of Anna. When Spring Awakening opened on Broadway, Stroker became the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage.

The show was a smash. So was Stroker.

She has had several stage, TV and film parts, and she will have many more, but to date she is best known for Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

But there’s more to her than her craft. Did you know she’s a strong swimmer, and is learning to surf? Did you know she’s co-chair of Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of New York City? And she’s a founding member of Be More Heroic, an anti-bullying campaign which tours the country connecting with thousands of students each year. She’s also gone to South Africa with ARTS InsideOut, where she has held theater classes and workshops for women and children affected by HIV and AIDS.

She credits a strong support system for her success. That support system includes her parents and boyfriend. “I’m so glad to have a partner who gets it,” she said. “He encourages me when I’m scared to go after the things I want.”

When Stroker won her Tony Award at Radio City Music Hall, she did not emerge from the crowd. She was backstage. Like many old buildings, the Music Hall, which opened in 1932, was not wheelchair accessible from the audience.

Stroker said the Music Hall did the best it could, but was limited by

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Ali Stroker from the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" performs on April 2, 2019 ANDREW LIPOVSKY/NBC Ali: Ali Stroker on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 NATHAN CONGLETON/NBC
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Ali Stroker from the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” ANDREW LIPOVSKY/NBC
Ali: Ali Stroker on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 NATHAN CONGLETON/NBC

its infrastructure.

It’s not a problem unique to the Music Hall, but it is emblematic.

For the disabled community, access is a profound word.

Access to stages. To roles. To higher education. To jobs. To Stroker and thousands upon thousands of others, access is opportunity.

“As a society, we have to work on improving access,” Stroker said. “I’ve found that theaters being built now are doing that.”

William Shakespeare famously said that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

If that’s true, then Stroker is a player in the limelight, staging her encore. As she stated in a recent interview with The New York Times, “I know in many ways that this is what I was born to do…it’s so clear I was meant to be in this seat.”

Maysoon Zayid: Advocacy With Humor

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Maysoon Zahid on stage speaking to an audience

By Brady Rhoades

What do you see when you look at Carol Burnett? How about Rosie O’Donnell or Margaret Cho? As for Maysoon Zayid, an actress who’s butted up against thousands of closed doors, she saw beauty. The beauty of opportunity.

“I realized that comedy was my way into Hollywood,” said Zayid, a stand-up comedian set to debut her new television series, Can Can. “I lucked out because I’m funny.”

Zayid galloped after her acting dream once she earned her degree in theater from Arizona State University … but it was a rocky start.

“I realized very quickly that casting directors were not taking me seriously because of my disability, cerebral palsy,” said Mansoon, in an interview with DIVERSEability Magazine. “I also became acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t see people who looked like me, a multiple minority, on TV.”

Born and raised in Cliffside, New Jersey, Zayid is of Palestinian descent.

She’s done plenty of comedic work, including starring in Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age. She’s also appeared in films, most prominently in Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.

As an advocate for equal rights for people with disabilities, she’s a shot in the arm to others who continue to face closed doors.

“People who have CP or other disabilities have often thanked me for being shameless about my shaking,” Zayid said. “Parents of kids with disabilities who are not disabled themselves tend to be inspired by how influential my father was in my life. They say it gives them hope that if they, too, are a good parent their child will thrive. People who feared disability seem relieved to be able to laugh about it while learning to be more inclusive. Some people just laugh because it’s funny. They are not learning, they are not inspired, and that is totally fine by me.”

ABC agreed to pick up Can Can last year—Zayid is still waiting for the word on when it will air.

Serena Williams and Maysoon Zayid at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women 2018 in Philadelphia.
Serena Williams and Maysoon Zayid at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women 2018 in Philadelphia. MARLA AUFMUTH/GETTY IMAGES

“I am creator writer, star and producer on Can Can,” she said. “I definitely don’t want to direct myself. It is a comedy series that revolves around a woman who happens to have CP balancing work, family and relationships. That’s all I can tell you for now. Stay tuned!”

You might learn a lot by watching Can Can, or you might learn nothing at all but simply laugh out loud. Either way, Zayid will be pleased.

“I’m here to make people laugh, not to preach. If they learn to be better people in the process, that’s great, too,” the 45-year-old comedian said.

Zayid started her acting career spending two years on the popular soap opera As the World Turns, and she has also made guest appearances on Law & Order, NBC Nightly News and ABC’s 20/20.

During her early acting experiences, she found both her disability and her ethnicity repeatedly limiting her advancement. Zayid then turned to stand-up and began appearing at New York’s top clubs, including Carolines on Broadway, Gotham Comedy Club, and Stand Up NY, where she tackled some serious topics, such as terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

She co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival in 2003 with comedian Dean Obeidallah. Held annually in New York City, the festival showcases Arab-American comics, actors, playwrights and filmmakers.

In late 2006, Zayid debuted her one-woman show, Little American Whore, at Los Angeles’ Comedy Central Stage; it was produced and directed by Kathy Najimy. In 2008, the show’s screenplay was chosen for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Production began with Maysoon as the lead in the fall of 2009.

Zayid usually tours by herself or as a special guest on the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. She also co-hosts the radio show Fann Majnoon (Arabic for “crazy art”) with Obeidallah.

Zayid performs onstage during Ms. Foundation for Women Comedy Night
Comedian Maysoon Zayid performs onstage during Ms. Foundation for Women’s 23rd Comedy Night at Carolines On Broadway. ASTRID STAWIARZ/GETTY IMAGES FOR MS. FOUNDATION FOR WOMEN

Zayid can be seen in the 2013 documentary, The Muslims Are Coming!, which follows a group of Muslim-American stand-up comedians touring the United States in an effort to counter Islamophobia. The documentary also features various celebrities such as Jon Stewart, David Cross, Janeane Garofalo and Rachel Maddow.

Cerebral palsy is extremely difficult, even torturous, so how does one make it funny?

Here’s Zayid in one of her stand-up routines, talking about getting passed over for the part of—can you guess?—a person with cerebral palsy.

“I went racing to the head of the theater department, crying hysterically like someone shot my cat, to ask her why, and she said it was because they didn’t think I could do the stunts,” Zayid said, with a quizzical, comical look. “I said, ‘Excuse me, if I can’t do the stunts than neither can the character!’”

Welcome to Zayid’s world, where one’s misfortune can be funny. It’s okay.

Audiences probably feel for her—“It’s exhausting,” she says of the constant shaking. But soon enough, they’re laughing from the gut up as they become more familiar—and following Maysoon’s lead, more comfortable—with her condition.

That’s key. Her shows have a family feel. Out of decency, respect and, yes, fear, folks do not laugh about a disability until they’re given permission to by an insider.

Here’s how Zayid-the-insider introduced herself at one show in San Francisco: “I don’t want anyone in this room to feel bad for me,” she said, scanning the crowd with her trademark goofy gaze. “Because at some point in your life, you’ve dreamt of being disabled. Come on a journey with me: It’s Christmas Eve. You’re at the mall. You’re driving around in circles looking for parking, and what do you see? Sixteen empty handicapped spaces. And you’re like, ‘God, can’t I just be a little disabled?’”

Of people with disabilities, Zayid says, “We are not happy snowflake angel babies. We grow up, have relationships, experience a range of emotions, and deal with things like chronic pain. Not everybody in the disability community wants to be ‘cured.’ We can have multiple disabilities and also be multiple minorities. Disability intersects with every community.”

She points out that about 20 percent of Americans have a disability. “Disability doesn’t discriminate—you can become part of this group at any time,” she said. “We are 20 percent of the population, and disability rights are human rights.”

So, if you haven’t already, put Can Can on your radar as a must-see show. It’s possible you might learn a little something, but one thing is sure—you’ll definitely laugh.

Source: DIVERSEability Magazine

Fearless Amputee Mama Cax Encourages Others to Face Anything

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Mama Cax walks the runway using crutches as her right leg was amputated

By Hiliary Innerbichler

Mama Cax, born Cacsmy Brutus, was given only three weeks to live when she was diagnosed with bone (osteosarcoma) and lung cancer at 14 years old.

Now in her late 20s—and after having her right leg amputated due to an unsuccessful hip replacement following chemotherapy—the Haitian-American is an advocate who utilizes social media as a platform to talk about body positivity and to dismantle the image of what people with disabilities should look like.

“When I first started blogging, a lot of women amputees were messaging me about how they’d never seen an amputee on social media or anywhere showing their prosthetics,” she said in an interview with Teen Vogue. “I think it’s so important to show people who have physical disabilities because there are people out there who buy products and never see themselves represented in any way, shape, or form.”

In 2016, the blogger, advocate, motivational speaker and model was invited to the White House to walk in the first ever White House Fashion Show to celebrate inclusive design, assistive technology, and prosthetics.

Soon after, Cax was made one of the faces of Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive line, and since then has made her debut walking the runway at New York Fashion week in designer Becca McCharen-Tran’s Spring 2019 show.

Mama Cax has now partnered with Olay in their new campaign #FaceAnything to encourage women to live fearlessly and to have the confidence to be unapologetically bold and true to themselves, according to health.com.

Source: Vogue.com, boredpanda.com, mamacax.com, health.com