Renowned actress and political activist Sheryl Lee Ralph has spent over two decades advocating for HIV and AIDS awareness through her DIVA Foundation. The original Broadway “Dreamgirl” took it upon herself to raise awareness about the “mystery” disease that caused her friends to die prematurely 30 years ago. Today, the world calls the illness AIDS and it affects more than 35 million people.
Ralph travels across the country and overseas to educate thousands on the importance of getting tested and knowing your status through Sometimes I Cry, her one-woman show that shares real stories of women living with HIV and AIDS, and DIVAS Simply Singing, Ralph’s benefit concert that raises money for Los Angeles-based AIDS awareness groups.
“We raise awareness and work to erase stigma using the arts. We work from a feminine artistic point of view, and that is what we will continue to do, “ Ralph says.
This year, Ralph is gearing up for the 25th annual DIVAS Simply Singing. This will be the last time she puts on the magical musical. “I remember standing on the stage of the Masonic Temple in Los Angeles saying to myself, 25 years from now I will be 50-something and we will have a cure. I never thought we would be here this long,” she says. In celebration of National HIV and AIDS Testing Day, Ralph spoke with rolling out on why she began this journey to combat the deadly disease, where people can get tested and her new role on the sitcom “Instant Mom.”
Why did you choose to advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness?
I was an original company member of Dreamgirls on Broadway. I was probably about 20 years old. I was having such a wonderful time in my life as you could imagine. Anybody who was anybody in the world, I got to meet them, because they were all coming to see the musical. It was a great time and in the middle of this great time came the worst. My friends just started dropping dead of a mysterious disease. That is when I said as a little church girl, “We can do better than this.” We cannot be as hateful as the way I saw people being to those who were sick and needed help. America literally just turned on fire under the flame of hate. To me, I never saw just gay people or gay Black people. I saw diversity and realized this isn’t just about homosexuals, this is about human beings.
What is the story behind your Diva Foundation?
Diva is an acronym for “Divinely Inspired and Victoriously Alive” and if it was Sunday, we would be anointed. When I first figured out in my mind what I was going to do to take action I said, “we were going to call out all the divas.” If people don’t want to hear about AIDS than they certainly want to know what divas are doing. I called up Debbie Allen, Brenda Russell, Tisha Campbell, Raven Simon and the list just went on. I reached out to all these women and put together Divas Simply Singing. We raise awareness and work to erase stigma using the arts. We work unapologetically from a feminine artistic point of view and that is what we will continue to do.
What kind of backlash did you receive in response to your work for HIV/AIDS awareness?
I didn’t want my work to just be engraved on crystal objects that will one day have no value. I want my legacy to be engraved in people’s lives. I want something that is going to last for eternity. I had to do this because I believed very early that if sex were a problem for men then women wouldn’t be far behind. People told me I was an alarmist and told me that I shouldn’t say such things. I thought to myself if it’s women then whose next? Indiana’s government just put out a national health emergency alert,because there was a breakout of too many young people who were infected with HIV and AIDS. I believe that good sex and good food are some of the greatest things that God has given to man, but when sex starts becoming a problem and the food starts becoming fake we have to pay attention.
Did you ever think Divas Simply Singing would have such longevity?
Heck no! I never thought we be here this long. We are now in the running for the Guinness Book of World Records.
What are some of your most memorable moments from your 25 year run with Divas Simply Singing?
I have so many, but I will never forget the day I was standing on stage with my son who I just had. He was going on 2 years old and I was holding him in front of the audience. I said to everyone that no matter what people thought if it were my son who were a gay man I would love my child. I remember getting some letters afterwards from a church saying that God would not find favor in me for spending time with THOSE people. I also received another asking what kind of bold, hypocrite was I to stand on stage and tell thousands of people that I would love a gay son. I will never forget that as long as I live.
Where can people go to pick up an Oraquick test?
These tests can be found at just about any local grocery or drug store. You can take the test in the privacy of your own home. All it takes is a quick swab in your mouth and then you will receive your results in 20 minutes. That 20 minutes is a powerful 20 minutes, because if you come up negative then we want you to continue everything that you have been doing. If you come up positive we want you to get into treatment right away. Knowing your status is everything.
You have played a motherly role on so many TV shows. You play Tia Mowry’s mom on “Instant Mom,” what has that experience been like?
It’s a lot of fun. I have my own children, which is an incredible gift, but I have also had the blessing of playing a mother to my TV children, including Brandy, Lauryn Hill, Pooch Hall and now Tia. I have some very impressive children. I think that I am the best mom ever.
How do you juggle motherhood with your busy career?
It’s a very delicate balance. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family. I really couldn’t have done it with out our home engineer called “Ms. Mae” who holds down the fort and keeps things running forward. I have the support of my mother who is still alive. My children also have to great fathers including my current husband Senator Vincent Hughes to give them love and the things they need.