Sheryl Lee Ralph
It seems fitting, somehow, that Sheryl Lee Ralph’s vision for joining the fight against HIV/AIDS came to her in a dream. Her hit musical Dreamgirls opened in 1981, the same year that doctors identified the first cases of disease. And it was during her run as a “dreamgirl” when one of her neighbors contracted the virus and Ralph first came face-to-face with the fast-spreading epidemic. Throughout the 1980s, as more friends and associates died, she vowed to become an activist for the cause. But she couldn’t figure out how she could make an impact. When she went to people for advice, they told her she was crazy.
“This is not your fight,” Ralph recalls several people telling her. “Getting involved in this issue could hinder your career.” With no funding and no support, she worried, what could she really do?
Then one night Ralph bolted upright from her sleep. In a dream, she had seen a woman on a stage belting it out in tribute to all of the lives lost. Suddenly it seemed very simple. Friends had always affectionately called the multi-talented entertainer a diva. So why not work it? She pulled out her address book and started dialing diva friends—Debbie Allen, Mary Wilson, Chaka Khan. She called everyone she could think of who fit the image from her dream.
She was putting together a show, she pleaded, and she needed their help. No, she couldn’t pay them. No, she couldn’t even hire a band. She’d be lucky if she could get just one pianist to work for free. But that didn’t matter, Ralph told her friends. They didn’t need elaborate staging. It would be “Divas Simply Singing,” and any money they made they would donate to AIDS organizations. Everyone she called said yes. The divas held their first concert in May 1990 at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Los Angeles. With only a grand piano to accompany her, Ralph brought the house down with a rendition of “I Am What I Am.” And as her voice filled the hall, she says, she could feel the spirits of those she had lost saying, “Sing that song for me, girl!”
Over a decade later, Ralph’s dream continues to be a meaningful reality. “Divas Simply Singing” has won widespread critical acclaim and has generated more than $1 million for AIDS-related charities like Project Angel Food and Caring for Babies with AIDS. “Show business is a low-down, dirty, dog-eat-dog business where people don’t often care about other people,” says Ralph. “I wanted, in my lifetime, to do something that was about caring for people just because we are human beings and that’s what human beings are supposed to do.”
As the epidemic has expanded, the work has become more painful. “I never thought when I started this that I, a Black woman, would one day represent the fastest growing group of new AIDS cases,” says Ralph. A native of Jamaica, the entertainer is also deeply concerned by the alarming spread of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, which has infection rates fast approaching those in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, even with statistics in the United States and around the world growing ever more alarming, Ralph still struggles every year to get support for her annual one-night event. Their ongoing reluctance to deal openly with the issue makes her that much more committed to continuing. “As Black people, we’ve been enslaved over and over again, and now we’ve come to a time when people are enslaving themselves, like they don’t remember the fights we’ve taken on and won before,” says Ralph, the fire in her voice blazing. “No matter how much ‘bling-bling’ you’ve got, without your health, your life, you have nothing. What part of the lesson haven’t we learned?”
The constant uphill struggle often gets discouraging. But Ralph says she needs only to look into the faces of her two children to remember what is at stake for the future. As important as it is to strive for community empowerment, she says, real empowerment begins in homes, in individual families. Even though they are still too young to fully understand the issues, Ralph works hard to involve her son and daughter in her work. As a family, they have delivered toys to children with AIDS, and she talks openly and regularly with them about what causes the disease and how to protect themselves. “So much about the spread of this disease has to do with people not feeling a sense of self-worth,” she says. “And so much of prevention can start with empowering our children, as early as we can, to value themselves.”
In the scope of AIDS work, Ralph sees her contribution as modest. There are certainly bigger, fancier fundraisers, and there are plenty of high-profile celebrities these days fronting events for the cause. But when strangers pass her on the street and say, “You go, Diva!” she knows that she, in her own special way, is making the difference she vowed so many years ago to make. “With our voices we have been able to touch a few people and make them pay attention to this issue,” says Ralph. “And if that’s simply all this event ever does, then that is simply all right.”