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Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph talks HIV/AIDS activism, 'Divas'
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2012-11-27

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Sheryl Lee Ralph. Photo from David Chadwick


Sheryl Lee Ralph is known for her various roles in the realm of entertainment, including actress (TV's Moesha), singer and Broadway star (the original cast of Dreamgirls). However, she is also passionate about fighting HIV/AIDS, and has been so for decades.

Ralph recently talked with Windy City Times about "Sometimes I Cry," her one-woman play about HIV/AIDS; her upcoming show, "Divas Simply Singing;" and what's she's thankful for this holiday season.

Windy City Times: You were in Chicago recently.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh, my God! Yes, I was in Chicago—and it was one of the greatest attendances for my one-woman show ever. There were over 500 people, and we at capacity! They must've stayed in their seats for a full hour after the show was over with questions; it was amazing.

I really hope the [University of Chicago, which hosted the show and a related HIV/AIDS conference] or somebody will find another place to do it and make it cost-effective. To see the people come out the way they did was amazing.

WCT: Let's talk about that show. It's called "Sometimes I Cry."

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Yes. "Sometimes I Cry" is all about real women and real stories about HIV/AIDS. But it's not just about that—for many of these women, there's a subplot about self-esteem, lack of information or awareness, issues of domestic violence. But it's all based upon real women.

WCT: So how did you get these stories from real women?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: It literally happened the summer of 2002. Phill Wilson, who founded the Black AIDS Institute, asked me if I would go on the road to cities where AIDS was not being talked about. While we did that, I just heard so many women with their own personal HIV/AIDS stories. It just shifted everything for me.

It was hard enough for me to go through the start of the AIDS epidemic. The number of friends I had lost— I made a public statement somewhere along the way that "If sex can be a death sentence for men, women cannot be too far behind." I was ridiculed for saying that; I was told I was a fool and that I should just stop it. Now, some 30 years later, over 50 percent of new HIV cases are women, [including] women of color.

Now, I'm going to say that if we're not careful, we're going to pass this disease on to our children—and it will not be nice.

WCT: Do you think there is one factor that contributes to this rise in infection rates more than any other?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: It's the same factor that plays in the rise of any disease: silence. Silence is the fertilizer [the disease] needs to grow. It's the same thing as when you're a binge eater and you think you're all alone and you're quiet about it. With breast cancer, there was a time when people would not say "breast" and "cancer" out loud. So many diseases grow in silence.

WCT: Back when we talked three years ago, we discussed complacency regarding HIV/AIDS. Do you still see it happening—for example, where people say it's OK if they get infected because they can take medication?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: I see so much going on, and it frightens me. As for medication, I've never, ever met somebody who said to me, "Ah—there's nothing wrong with me. I just take a pill and I'm fine." Trust me, this is not a back pain what you're going to take some ibuprofen for and get through it.

WCT: On World AIDS Day (Dec. 1), you have something planned that you do every year.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: I'm so shocked that I'm about to raise the curtain on the 22nd annual "Divas Simply Singing." If anybody had ever told me that it would be 22 years, I would've said, "You're crazy. There'll be a cure. There'll be something. There'd be no need for 'Divas Simply Singing.'"

But once again, the divas will take to the stage—the lights, the mic and the divas simply singing to the piano because we don't have enough money for a full band. [Laughs] It will be an incredible night.

WCT: Who will be performing besides yourself?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Some of the most committed women ever because this year (American Airlines is our supporter) we didn't have tickets how we used to, so we had to fly people economy. You know what I'm saying, right? You tell some of these women they're flying economy, it separates the divas from the divas.

Performers will include Lalah Hathaway, Faith Evans, Oleta Adams, Tramaine Hawkins, Jenifer Lewis. Jamar Rogers from The Voice will be there—and he's HIV-positive. El DeBarge will also be singing, and El will be presented with the [AIDS] quilt for his brother, Bobby, who died of AIDS.

That is part of another project I worked on last year. I was working with the AIDS Quilt and I found out that, out of the 55 miles, less than a mile was dedicated to people of color because they will not tell their truth. So I went all across this country—from Mississippi to Miami to New Orleans to Alabama to Atlanta—to get people to do quilts for their loved ones. We're going to present the quilt for Bobby DeBarge.

We've been here 22 years because we're committed—and we simply dared to care.

WCT: After all this time, what keeps you going?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: It's the fact that I don't want this to be my children's [problem] and the fact that, in the beginning, I lost some good friends who were kind men—somebody's son, somebody's father, somebody's lover. I refuse to let their memory just disappear.

Nobody saw what I saw. You had to see what I saw; I saw men disappear and look like they had been dragged out of concentration camps. Nobody saw when they couldn't walk—and how most [of whom I saw] were left to rot in their own shit. I saw it. I'll never forget it as long as I live.

I went to the hospital and a man had a sign at the foot of his bed that had in big red letters, "DON'T TOUCH." I saw that.

WCT: I talked with a writer who said he lost hundreds of friends in the '80s to AIDS. I can't even imagine what that's like.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: To me, the turning point was when I couldn't cross one more name off my phone book. It was that many. You would get sick and tired asking, "Whose memorial am I going to now?" It was awful.

WCT: Well, I want to switch gears with this last question. With the holiday season approaching, what are you thankful for?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh, my God. I'm thankful that I have my family around me. My father passed away because of prostate cancer, so I'm telling men constantly to take the test. But I'm glad to have my family; I'm happy I have a husband who supports the kind of work I do. I'm happy that my children are aware of what's going on around them and that they care to be a part of what I'm doing. I am happy that we'll spread the word about HIV/AIDS with the 22nd annual "Divas Simply Singing."

To find out more about "Divas Simply Singing," visit www.thedivafoundation.org .


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