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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sheryl Lee Ralph :: From Dreamgirl to AIDS activist

By Robert Nesti -
Sheryl Lee Ralph at the recent 20th "Annual Divas Simply Singing"
Sheryl Lee Ralph at the recent 20th
"Annual Divas Simply Singing"

On December 1, Sheryl Lee Ralph was busier than usual, running around Manhattan from television appearance to television appearance and getting soaked in the process.

"It’s one of the worst days in the whole year weather-wise," she explained having just arrived back at her New York home. "We just had tantamount to a small monsoon here in New York. When I tell you that I am wet down to all my natural parts, it was just that much of a downpour."

Yet if the Tony-nominated actress was soaked to the bone, she wasn’t the least bit bothered. Instead there was both enthusiasm and determination in her voice as she addressed the occasion for this interview - World AIDS Day and her commitment to help end the silence that has grown around the disease in recent years.

(upper) Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph
and Loretta Devine in the original production
of Dreamgirls; (lower) Devine, Holliday and
 Ralph at a recent cast reunion

Best of times, worst of times

Promoting AIDS awareness is nothing new for Ralph, who recalled how her triumphant run in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls was dampened by the emergence of a strange illness (initially called GRID or Gay Related Immune Deficiency) that was crippling and killing her cast members and production team, including both the musical’s director Michael Bennett and librettist Tom Eyen.

"When Loretta (Devine) and I were doing Dreamgirls I always tell people it was the best and worst of all times for us," she explained. "The best was, of course, being the belles of the ball on Broadway; the worst was when our friends just started dropping dead. They dropped dead of a mysterious disease and a deadly silence followed. That was it." GRID became AIDS and grew to epidemic proportions in the early 1990s, decimating large portions of the urban gay population. At that time Ralph started the nonprofit Diva Foundation (home of the stage benefit Divas Simply Singing!) in 1990. The foundation served two purposes; it has memorialized the friends that Ralph has lost to HIV/AIDS, and it worked to get the word out about the virus. "My friends were good, kind children of God...," Ralph told A&U Magazine in 2008, "...they deserved a memorial."

The foundation’s annual concert - Divas Simply Singing! - became an artistic expression for the fight against HIV and AIDS, which continues to this day. It recently held its 20th anniversary concert this past October in Los Angeles. (Click here to learn more about the event.)

Sheryl Lee Ralph 

Silence still equals death

But that’s not the only artistic endeavor that Ralph is involved in in the fight against AIDS. Recently she lent her support to the Fight HIV Your Way Contest, sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb’s REYATAZ, a prescription drug used in combination with other medicines to treat people who are infected with HIV.

The contest - in its third year - asks people to enter photos that express their feelings about the disease that will be used to inspire a new dance work by the distinguished Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to be performed next year. Ten First Place Winners will be chosen by a distinguished panel of judges a their stories will be used as inspiration for a performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance

Theater to appear during select dates of their dance tour. Winners will also be flown to New York City to attend performances of the new work late next year.

"It’s really exciting because I have always believe that there has always been room for the arts in the fight against HIV and AIDS," she explained. "When I heard about adding art, photography and essays to this fight, giving people the opportunity to really tell their stories. I was like, this is something great to be involved in."

As a spokesperson for the project, Ralph feels that one of the benefits of the project is how these photos and the stories that accompany them help in breaking down the silence surrounding the disease. "That really is what helps with taking away the stigma of the disease because I truly believe that if you get people to feel how you feel - to go to their hearts and their heads about the disease then you’re able to break the silence and the stigmas around HIV and AIDS.

"This is such a great project because when you see these pieces - when people look at their lives and turn it into a art - it’s so moving. Maybe it’s a simple photo, maybe it’s their child. Maybe it’s their dog. Maybe it is their view of the river or sunset. It’s something very personal that touches you. And then we you hear those dog-gone stories that go along with them. It’s just amazing."

Over the years Ralph has seen the face of AIDS change from that of gay white men to women of color. "I have watched the face of the disease become more feminized and much younger, and that is very disturbing," she said. This led to her developing Sometimes I Cry, her one-person show in which she chronicles real experiences of women living with HIV and AIDS and is presently presenting around the country.

"What I do with that is I simply tell real women’s real stories. And I found that when I do that using my art I find that I don’t go their heads, as much as I go their hearts. That’s where you have to reach people on this disease. They can’t just think that it is somebody else. They’ve got to feel what it feels like."

On this World AIDS Day, Ralph feels that things have gone full circle, and not in a good way.

"Since HIV/AIDS began there has always been a silence and silence has always equaled death. It seems that same silence is back now and we got to break it," she said.

Asked about the trend with younger gay men to indulge in risky sex, Ralph offered a clear-headed analysis.

"They believe that there is medication there and it is okay. They believe that it is a simple disability and it is going to be all right. And they don’t understand that medication doesn’t work for everybody. They don’t understand this is the life you want to lead. I have never ever met one person with the virus or the disease who has ever said, this is the life I always dreamed of. Never.

"We need to get some people some rear-view mirrors so they can see back. Because they need to be able to see back. We’ve got to figure it out."

For Ralph one way isn’t through pamphlets, PSA and lectures, but through artistic expression, which is why the Fight HIV Your Way Contest is so important for her.

"In so many ways we’ve been behind the ball in the fight against HIV and AIDS in America for so long. If this how we catch up, then great. I know that the dance, I know that photography, I know that the spoken word, all of these things are transformational. And when you are able to transform people’s thinking and touch their hearts that we are really able to move people around HIV and AIDS.

"And," she added, "please make sure that people go to to find out more about this fabulous project."


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