Ali Stroker on acting opposite Danai Gurira in 'Richard III'
This summer, Tony Award winner Ali Stroker is acting in Shakespeare in the Park for the first time in Richard III, and so far, it's been a very wet experience. It rained almost every night during the first week of performances. One night, the show even started 80 minutes late because of rain. But Stroker is taking it in strides.
"It's been amazing," she enthused one evening before the show. "It has always been on my bucket list."
Stroker had never acted in a Shakespeare play professionally. In recent years, she's become known as a musical theatre maven, winning a Tony for her showstopping turn as Ado Annie in the 2019 revival of Oklahoma! and starring in the 2015 Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. She also acted in a few scenes with Sarah Jessica Parker in the Sex and the City reboot on HBO, And Just Like That... (Stroker considers herself a Carrie), and is a published author. In May, she released a children's book, Ali and the Sea Stars, based on her own childhood doing musical theatre in New Jersey.
So when Stroker got the call asking if she wanted to star in Richard III, she was intimidated but up for the challenge. "Shakespeare can be really scary. The language is different. It's like doing a play in another language," said Stroker. "But I was so excited for the challenge this summer and so excited to work on something that I had never done before."
Richard III is one of Shakespeare's history plays and one of his more controversial works. It is inspired by the real king of England of the same name, whose defeat ended the War of the Roses, England's civil war. In Richard III, the main character is usually depicted as having a disability (in the play, Richard calls himself "Deformed, unfinish'd," and the real-life Richard may have had scoliosis). Richard says his appearance "condemns [him] for a villain," so he schemes to take the throne from his brother, King Edward IV, and kill anyone in his way.
In recent years, Richard III has come under scrutiny because the actors usually cast as Richard have pretended to have a disability — a practice Stroker and many disability advocates consider offensive. "Putting on a disability, that's in the past. I don't think that we should do that any longer," said Stroker, who uses a wheelchair.
In this new production at Shakespeare in the Park, directed by Tony nominee Robert O'Hara, Richard is played by Tony nominee Danai Gurira (who wrote Eclipsed on Broadway, and who has starred in Black Panther and The Walking Dead). Gurira does not have a disability. But multiple actors around her — such as Lady Anne (Stroker), King Edward IV/Richmond (Gregg Mozgala), and Richard's mother (Monique Holt) — are disabled.
Below, Stroker shares why her scene with Gurira in Richard III is "one of the most challenging but exciting scenes [she's] ever worked on" and how the Delacorte Theater at Shakespeare in the Park was made more accessible for her.
Richard III runs until July 17. Tickets are free, and are available each performance day in person at the Delacorte Theater and via the lottery on TodayTix.
Is the Delacorte Theater accessible?
It's not fully accessible. They made it accessible for me. They built a dressing room [for me] that's right next to the stage, and then they put in these chair lifts on stage right so that I can get onto the stage. It's been made accessible for me, and that's a big deal. It's been exciting to feel the shift and the change and knowing that the people coming up behind me, people who are performers — who might get injured or need that accessibility — it's there, and that there are producers and theatre owners now who know how to do it. That is a huge step for the disabled community and for the theatre community.
What did Robert O'Hara tell you about the casting decisions for the show?
Richard III always had a lot of conversations about disability. I was really excited to find out that there would be many people with different disabilities cast in the show. I hope it's just an example for people to see that you can cast somebody with a disability and it can support a story and make it even better. I think that Robert wanted to honor the disabilities but also continue to tell the story that is at hand. And that's something that I believe in: Disability is something that's on stage and it's a part of the show, but it doesn't have to be explained in order for it to work. Having Richard surrounded by actors that happen to be disabled is an effective choice.
In the play, Richard kills Anne's husband and then seduces her in front of her dead husband's body. Why do you think Anne goes along with it?
Anne realizes that her options are slim. If she doesn't marry, that means she's either going to get killed, or she's going to be banished. And all of a sudden, he pulls out the biggest diamond she's ever seen in her life. And she thinks, maybe it won't be so bad. So she trades her actual feelings towards this person for security. And that was something, as an actor, I had to wrap my arms around, because it's hard to imagine that as a modern woman. But I definitely think all the women [in the play] are aware of what's going on. They are the characters who are checking Richard, who are challenging him. I think the men are not as aware of what he's up to. And I love, love the actresses in this play.
What was it like acting opposite Danai Gurira?
I love working with Danai; she is so hardworking and generous and kind and focused. When you are on stage with Danai, it's like nothing else exists in the world. Our scene is very physical; there's a lot of movement. It's sort of like a wrestling match: We're figuring out physically and spatially who's going to take power next. That was really important to me that Anne was on equal footing with Richard. Anne is a very powerful woman. And for her to get wooed at the end, I don't think it's a loss. It's her way of choosing her best possible choice.
Do you want to do more Shakespeare now?
I would love to do more Shakespeare! I would love to play Ophelia [in Hamlet]. It's sort of a darker answer, but that would be really powerful and exciting. I'm always cast as the positive bright spot, and it'd be a challenge to do something totally different.
Photo credit: Ali Stroker and Danai Gurira in Richard III. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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