A diva? Sheryl Lee Ralph acts the part, dresses the part, and talks the part. Discussing her most recent Divas Simply Singing fund-raising spectacular a few days before the curtain rose on the October event in Los Angeles, Ralph spoke loudly and clearly — like she was on back on Broadway getting ready to belt out her hit song "One Night Only."
"It's hard to see that here we are going into the 31st year of AIDS in January 2012 and people still don't want to know about a disease that is all around them," Ralph says. "That's why we continue to do Divas Simply Singing. As long as people will come in and pay their money to see a diva strut with her big hair, wild wardrobe, outsize attitude, and the simple gift of song — if that's what it takes to get people's attention focused on HIV, that's what we have to do."
Ralph originated the famed role of Deena Jones in Dreamgirls, and she's starred in several hit TV shows and films, including Moesha, Barbershop, and To Sleep With Anger. But when it comes to stars putting their necks out for people with HIV, especially African-Americans with the disease, Ralph is in a class all her own. Divas Simply Singing is part of Ralph's nonprofit organization, the DIVA Foundation (TheDivaFoundation.org), which has just entered its third decade raising money for HIV causes. The shows have delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars for organizations like Women Alive, Caring for Babies With AIDS, Minority AIDS Project, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and the Black AIDS Institute.
At the most recent 21st Annual Simply Singing event, stars including Reno 911!'s Niecy Nash, Glee's Amber Riley, singer Bonnie Pointer, and Ralph's Dreamgirls costars Loretta Devine and Jennifer Holliday performed, making not only money, but also bringing needed media attention to the cause.
"It's amazing how deep the silence is and how deep the silence seems to be killing folks quicker than the disease," Ralph says. "I was talking with folks at the AIDS [Memorial Quilt] project and they said to me, 'The AIDS quilt is 50 miles long, and only half a mile is people of color. Because people of color don't even want to admit or acknowledge they've lost their loved ones.' We've got to stop that."
Ralph's introduction to AIDS started early on. The year that the first AIDS case was diagnosed, 1981, was the year Dreamgirls began wowing audiences, and Ralph found herself in New York starring in a hit show as the disease was ravaging the city, especially Broadway performers and creative personnel, many of whom were gay.
"People found it easy to turn their backs on gay people because of what they thought about those people," Ralph remembers of that time. "Now, 30 years later, we are all those people. And people are still dying under shame, stigma, and silence. I remember my friends, I remember what they looked like, I remember how they lived, I remember how they died."
Ralph started the DIVA (Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware) Foundation in 1990 to honor those friends. The work of the organization extends beyond the Simply Singing fund-raiser, it's involved with prevention seminars, testing events, and distributing free health care materials. The DIVA Foundation hosted 2008's Sisters Circle, a four-day summit in South Africa that brought together infected and affected women, including Ralph.
In 2009, Ralph toured this country with her one-woman show, Sometimes I Cry, which tells the stories of women with HIV, and raised money for the Foundation. Last fall Ralph joined Dionne Warwick and other black leaders at a town hall meeting in Harlem that drew 200 people to discuss HIV's effect on black America — recent numbers from the CDC show that while African-Americans compose 14 percent of the population, they make up nearly half of all people in the U.S. with HIV, and they'll account for half of all new HIV infections this year. Infections among young black men who have sex with men increased 48 percent between 2006 and 2009.
"The message imparted at the town hall was, number 1, we were in the middle of Harlem and we know the rate of HIV infection there is high. We also know that room wasn't as full as it should have been," Ralph says, even though nearly 200 people attended the event at the Harlem United Community AIDS Center. "What I've noticed from all my travels across the country is that anytime I go to a place that has a problem and folks don't show up, the problem is usually bigger than we thought. That was very hard to see. It was hard to see people still not wanting to grasp that a way to contract HIV is through heterosexual sex. It was hard to see people not able to grasp that there are intravenous drug users who have to be dealt with and needle-exchange programs are not programs from hell."
The latest philanthropic project for Ralph, who was honored for her contributions with the United Nations' Red Ribbon Leadership Award in 2005, is serving as the spokeswoman for Bristol-Myers Squibb's Fight HIV Your Way contest. Now in its third year, Fight HIV Your Way asks people living with HIV to document their lives through photo essays. In previous years, the most powerful testimonies were featured in public spaces in New York and San Francisco, but this year 10 winners will find their stories interpreted through dance by the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Artistic director Robert Battle worked with renowned hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris to create the new work, titled Home. The world premiere took place on World AIDS Day, December 1, in New York City, and there will be select performances of Home across the nation in 2012. (You can find more information and read the winners' stories at FightHIVYourWay.com.)
"This contest is a wonderful effort to bring the arts to the fight against HIV and AIDS," Ralph says. "To be able to have people's own HIV/AIDS stories put to music, put to dance, set up on the stage as a thing of beauty to be shared with other people, is really thinking outside of the box."
The mission of the DIVA Foundation is similar, Ralph says: using song, dance, and joy to remind people that HIV is still a big deal. "Everybody seems to have the feeling that, I'll just pop a pill. It's just a disability; it's not the disease it used to be," Ralph says. "A young man called me up yesterday to say, 'Miss Ralph, you told me to take the test, and I'm positive.' That call has never changed over 30 years — the same fear, the same apprehension, the same not knowing is still the same as it was 30 years ago, except now people are thinking, Now what do I do? because they know they have something to do. It may not be the death sentence it was 30 years ago, but it certainly remains a life-altering existence."