She hit Broadway, in Dreamgirls, as AIDS was first hitting America. Now Sheryl Lee Ralph, ever the diva, brings down the house by demanding that when it comes to AIDS prevention, women of color do more than just dream.
Sheryl Lee Ralph launched her bid to become what she calls “the most fabulous AIDS diva ever to wear a red ribbon” on December 20, 1981. At precisely 6:48 that evening, the 24-year-old Ralph adjusted her false eyelashes and bouffant wig and took her position in the wings of New York City’s Imperial Theatre. In three minutes, the curtain would rise on the Broadway premiere of a radical new musical. It dared—with thin disguise and without apology—to mine the bitch-slapping saga of Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Ralph had won a starring role: Ross’s fictional counterpart, Deena Jones, who leads a smoothly soulful ’60s trio called the Dreams. (Beyoncé played Deena in last December’s film version.) “I stood in the wings waiting and waiting for the curtain to rise,” purrs Ralph, now 50. It seemed like a lifetime. “I was thinking, ‘Lord, I’ve already been in one Broadway flop. Please, please, let this work out.’” But something else was rattling her too. In the months since the show—called Big Dreams in workshops and Dreamgirls by opening night—began rehearsals, many of her friends in the cast and crew were starting to become terribly ill. “We didn’t know what it was,” she remembers now, fiddling with her blouse—which blares the word “Diva,” in Las Vegas sequins, over a red ribbon. “Nobody knew what it was. They were all gay men, and they just suddenly got sick. Pneumonia, or lesions on their face. Worst of all, nobody wanted to talk about it. These men died silently, and in shame, almost as soon as they took ill. There wasn’t even time to help—even if we could have.”
Nor was there time on that 1981 night to ponder the matter further: The curtain suddenly went up, the lights shone down, and Sheryl Lee Ralph shimmied into Broadway history. The legendary New York Times critic Frank Rich—who, dubbed the Butcher of Broadway, could end a career in one sentence—proclaimed her “superb” in the next day’s review. Dreamgirls was a smash, and Ralph went on to play 1,247 performances, winning a Tony nomination in the process.
But the men kept on dying on the Great White Way. Ralph estimates that by the time Dreamgirls played its last Broadway performance, on August 11, 1985, the show had lost one third of the cast and crew to AIDS. The casualties began at the very top of the credits, including the man who penned the Dreamgirls plot and lyrics, Tom Eyen, and the show’s celebrated director and choreographer, Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line), who died in seclusion.
Indeed, Dreamgirls is almost exactly as old as AIDS itself, both having made their American debut in the same year. But many of those in the cast who remained healthy—such as the volcanic Jennifer Holliday, who originated the character of Effie, for which Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar—seemed artistically cursed. Tracing the performers’ commercial fates, Frank Rich footnoted his Times review when it was reprinted in 1998. “Few involved with this production went on to the careers it promised,” he wrote.
Sheryl Lee Ralph begs to differ—loudly. She acknowledges the pressure, these past 25 years, of having to disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are “no second acts in American lives.” She has always found work, in such series as Moesha (playing Brandy’s sassy, two-snaps-up stepmom), It’s a Living (playing a sassy, two-snaps-up waitress) and Designing Women (a sassy, two-snaps-up showgirl). She even returned to Broadway in 2002, in a smallish role in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
But having arrived, at 24, in the role of a lifetime, could she ever find another? In that quest, Ralph hasn’t sat back on her boa: She has had the good sense to cast herself in the role of a lifetime—13 lifetimes, to be exact. Merging her AIDS-fighting passion and the diva persona that she says Deena’s fans demand, she has crafted a one-woman stage work. Called Sometimes I Cry, it depicts 13 vastly different people affected or infected by HIV. Produced by Sheryl Lee Ralph, directed by Sheryl Lee Ralph, written by Sheryl Lee Ralph and starring Sheryl Lee Ralph (and only Sheryl Lee Ralph), Sometimes I Cry has crossed America, appearing since 2004 in nearly every state, as well as in Europe and Africa.
But whereas Ralph’s commitment to AIDS started—as did Elizabeth Taylor’s, Sharon Stone’s and Madonna’s—with the deaths of mostly white, gay male mentors and colleagues, her target audience has evolved with the epidemic. Sometimes I Cry’s 13 characters, all based on real people she has met and interviewed, are women of color. African-American color. “Now, I hope people realize,” Ralph adds, “that the same stigma that applied to a gay white man with AIDS like Michael Bennett or the others who died with Dreamgirls now applies to its characters, the African-American women who are at the heart of the show.” It is Ralph’s contention that if Dreamgirls were set in 2007, all of its plucky young women would face another challenge besides shifty recording managers and unscrupulous agents: AIDS. The data bear her out: As POZ reports elsewhere in this issue, AIDS is the No. 1 killer of African-American women aged 25 to 34.
Before Ralph, who is HIV negative, devised Sometimes I Cry as an ideal showcase for her acting and advocacy talents, she was already an AIDS leader of some note.
Since 1990, she has produced and hosted Divas Simply Singing, a swanky fund-raising concert with a changing powerhouse lineup that has included Chaka Khan, Jody Watley, Natalie Cole and Patti LaBelle. (This year’s event is set for October 6 in Los Angeles; see divassimplysinging.comfor more information.) “I had a dream,” Ralph says, “where I saw a glamorous woman singing alone, with little accompaniment. And that’s what Divas Simply Singing is. Each diva performs one song with the sole accompaniment of a concert grand piano.”
Over the years, the event has raised more than $1 million for HIV research and services around the country. The earnings are distributed from her nonprofit Diva Foundation, which, along with other AIDS charities, benefits from the sales of her personal cosmetics and home-fragrance collection (whose candles bear the inscription “Darling, please trim wick to no more than ¼ inch before using”). Ralph will tell you that in her private moments she is hardly a diva. She is fiercely committed to her family: Though based in Los Angeles, she is married to Pennsylvania state senator Vincent Hughes; geography dictates that they see each other only every two weeks. (They have two children, 12 and 10, who also shuttle between coasts.) In the rare public instance where Ralph is not playing the part of fierce, fabulous, you-go-girl icon, her spangly eyelashes droop and her speaking voice can lower in exhaustion. Sometimes I Cry tours 50 weeks a year. “You know, I never really aimed to be this character, [to do] the diva thing,” she says. “I am the accidental diva. The label was thrust upon me by the roles I’ve played. And even when I was doing Dreamgirls, it wasn’t like my personal life suddenly exploded. I never had men waiting for me at the stage entrance. I was always seen as the ‘cerebral one.’ “ But a diva is what the public seems to want, whether that public knows her from Dreamgirls or Moesha. “If being a diva is what it takes,” she says, “if that’s the role that I’ve got to play to get some attention for this disease, then so be it.” And then, interrupted by an adoring fan who has rushed over, thrusting her mobile phone in Ralph’s face and saying, “Ms. Ralph, say hello to my girlfriend who just can’t believe I’m standing next to you,” Ralph’s face comes alive, and she narrows her eyes in thespian glamour. Talking into the phone, she says, “Hello, darling. What are you doing, girl? Uh-huh. Right. Uh-huh. Well we’re up here having fun and doing a little something about AIDS ….”
It is July 16, 2007, and at precisely 7:08 p.m., Sheryl Lee Ralph takes her position in the wings of Symphony Hall, in Newark, New Jersey. She stands only 14 miles from the Imperial Theatre in New York City, but she is worlds away from the Broadway crucible that made her a star. Here in New Jersey, 63 percent of all women living with HIV are African American. And so she is waiting for the lights to come up on Sometimes I Cry, which she is about to perform as part of Magic Johnson’s I Stand With Magic community prevention road show. Ralph will precede Magic’s talk with the audience. She has become, like the early Dreamgirls, the opening act. As the hall, packed with a largely African-American audience, fills with anticipatory cries and whistles, the announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, here she is, that diva of divas, Sheryl Lee Ralph!” The crowd, who knows her mostly from Moesha, comes unglued. She slinks out onto the stage in a sleek black pantsuit, singing “I am an endangered species…but I sing no victim’s song.” The crowd hushes. Ralph then launches a confessional, autobiographical slide show—in the style of other stage divas, like Elaine Stritch and Chita Rivera—that depicts her Dreamgirls debut. But she stuns the audience when she tells them it was “such an ugly time in America,” and recalls the rising AIDS body count. “That same silence,” she says, “that same ugly silence about AIDS afflicts our African-American sisters!” she cries. And then she morphs into a young woman who was sexually assaulted in various foster homes, contracting HIV. Next she portrays a 68-year-old widow, married to the same man for 45 years, who has sex with another man for the first time—and contracts HIV. “I never knew about ‘the AIDS,’ ” the character says. “At first I kept thinking, ‘What does AIDS have to do with me?’” The performance ends with the character’s war cry, a chant the audience mouths with her. “Speak up about AIDS! Speak up! Lift me up!” Ralph says. “Talk about it. Speak about it. Help your sister, your mother, your auntie, your lover, your partner, your friend. Help me! Love me! Because I am HIV positive, and sometimes I cry.”