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Sheryl Lee Ralph is Helping Tell Real Stories of Black Women Living With HIV

photo by Sean Black

With her exuberant energy and ageless beauty, it’s hard to believe that the career of legendary actress Sheryl Lee Ralph has now spanned over 45 years — and that she’s been an HIV advocate for nearly as long. 

After Ralph’s first big break in the 1977 film A Piece of the Action, she made her Broadway debut in 1981, originating the iconic Deena Jones in Dreamgirls (a role for which Ralph earned a Tony nomination and was later played by Beyoncé in the 2006 film version). Since then, Ralph has literally never stopped working and has appeared in dozens of movies, TV shows, and stage productions including Sister Act 2, Moesha, Barbershop, and To Sleep With Anger.

photo by Sean Black

Unfortunately, just when her career started to explode in the early ’80s, so did the AIDS epidemic — and Ralph witnessed firsthand the suffering and devastating loss of life in those dark early days. The young actress quickly worked to turn tragedy into change. She founded the DIVA Foundation (thedivafoundation.org) in 1990, which raises funds for HIV causes, especially ones focused on the Black community and women and children. Over the past four decades, the DIVA Foundation has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations like Women Alive, Caring for Babies With AIDS, Minority AIDS Project, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and the Black AIDS Institute.

“It’s amazing how deep the silence is, and how deep the silence seems to be killing folks quicker than the disease,” Ralph told Plus back in 2012. “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.”

In addition to the DIVA Foundation, Ralph continues to show up for various other HIV-related causes and campaigns. In keeping her commitment to add people of color to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, she’s currently an ambassador for Change the Pattern (changethepattern.org), an initiative created to bring sections of the quilt to communities throughout the American South in order to add names of Black and brown lives lost to the virus, as well as raise awareness around HIV in the area. 

Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Gilead CEO Daniel O'Day and honoree Ralph attend the Elizabeth Taylor Ball to End AIDS in September of 2022

Ralph balances her HIV philanthropy with a career that is hotter than ever. She recently guest-starred in shows like Motherland: Fort Salem, Fam, and A Black Lady’s Sketch Show. And of course, there’s her Emmy-winning role as seen-it-all teacher Barbara Howard on ABC’s Abbott Elementary (also available to stream on Hulu). Ralph’s joyful and moving acceptance speech at the 2022 Emmy Awards ceremony, which began with an emotional burst of song, quickly went viral online and continues to inspire millions.

“My dad had been my music teacher, always, growing up — teaching the piano, voice lessons, conducting the choir,” Ralph explains when asked what inspired the now-iconic musical moment. “Sometimes, I’d get to center stage and I’d be nervous, and then I’d want to cry…. One day, my father said, ‘Stop it. The people didn’t come to see the tears, the people came to see the show, hear the voice, see the performance. Show them who you are.’”

“Quite literally, I had lost my mind when they mentioned my name,” she admits with a laugh, saying that Abbott showrunner and creator Quinta Brunson (who also won a writing Emmy that night for the series) and costar Tyler James Williams had to help her get up and to the stage in her stunned state. “I don’t remember walking across the stage to get to center stage [but] I remember that moment. I could hear my father say... ‘Show them who you are.’ I had to settle myself by doing what would settle me, and that was the song, ‘Endangered Species.’

Myung J. Chun/Getty Images

The Abbott Elementary star burst into song while accepting her award at the 74th Annual Primetime Emmys

“‘I’m a woman, I’m an artist, and I know where my voice belongs.’ That’s who I am,” Ralph continues, reciting some of the song’s lyrics. “There I was, with the support of my kids up in the balcony, who I could hear clear as day, [and] see my husband just beaming with pride, my cast members crying. It was just like, Oh my God.”

With the overwhelming amount of entertainment content that’s available today, it’s rare to have something like Abbott Elementary become a mainstream, critical, and commercial hit — especially for a series created, written, and produced by a Black woman and with a predominantly Black lead cast. And this fact isn’t lost on Ralph.

“It is just the most amazing, wonderful feeling,” she says. “I don’t think people know enough what it is actually like to wake up in the morning [and] go to a job that you actually love. Mine just happens to be my art. It just happens to be great TV. It just happens to be in the company of wonderful human beings, very talented people. When you look at the show, the cast, the crew, the writers — we all do that together — it’s really amazing what we get to do. The feeling is just like in Dreamgirls, I had a line that said, ‘It’s wonderful. What can I say? But wonderful. And I couldn’t have done it alone. I thank you. I thank you.’”

Allen J. Schaben/Getty Images

Ralph gives her trophy a kiss after winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

These days Ralph is also expanding her clout behind the scenes as a director and producer, and is very excited about an upcoming documentary she’s producing, Unexpected, which focuses on the personal stories of Black women living with HIV.

“Some time ago... I had written a one-woman show called Sometimes I Cry,” she explains. “It was all about real women’s stories, either [living with] or affected by HIV and AIDS. I started writing down these women’s stories because we know there came a time through that last pandemic when women, especially women of color, were bearing the brunt of the disease, and nobody was saying anything. I was so sick and tired of the silence around Black people and Hispanic people [and their] stories not being told, names not included in things like the Quilt. I was just like, Oh no, not on my watch. I know better, so let me do better.”

Ralph says she’d been thinking about these women’s stories over the years and for other ways to share them — and then was approached by Unexpected’s director, Zeberiah Newman.

“I was like, This is absolute synergy. Being able to tell these women’s stories through this documentary about what it is they’re dealing with. Like I said, I know where my voice belongs. Anytime we’re able to elevate certain subject matters, especially the plight of women around HIV, in AIDS, in life, period.”

courtesy Zeberiah Newman

Left to right: filmmaker Zeberiah Newman and Unexpected's stars, Ciarra 'Ci Ci' Covin and Masonia Traylor

Newman currently serves as a producer on the Late Late Show With James Corden and directed 2021’s Right to Try, a documentary short about long-term HIV survivor Jeffrey Drew, who literally put his life on the line to find a cure for HIV.

“I’m a storyteller, I’m not necessarily an activist,” Newman clarifies, “but while making Right to Try, [I kept] coming up against all this information about how HIV is really exploding in the Southern states, in Black communities — and I kept hearing about this intense stigma, this crumbling health care system, and just a lot of forces at play that made it a very compelling story. And so I just wanted to see what I could find out. I started talking to people and, you know, once you meet [the women featured in Unexpected], you fall in love with them.”

“It’s crazy that I’m doing these back-to-back HIV stories,” he adds, “because, like I said, I’m not really an activist — but they’re just incredible stories that people need to know.”

unexpected

Scenes from the documentary Unexpected, a short film about Black women living with HIV that Ralph produced

Newman also confesses that his collaboration with Ralph on the project may have been a little more than just divine intervention.

“I was kind of chasing her a little,” Newman says with a chuckle. “I mean, full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of hers. And when I was doing Right to Try, her name kept popping up [because] her work in this space is sort of legendary, and it’s very well documented that her foundation has been at the forefront of this issue for like 30-something years.”

Fortunately for the world, the project came to fruition and, as of press time, Unexpected is gearing up to make its debut in the 2023 film festival circuit.

As we conclude our conversation with this legendary diva, she tells us, “I have really spent my life trying to do the best that I can in living my life and conducting myself as a human being — the rules that I’ve chosen in my career, the way I’ve been able to use my platform, the movements that I choose to support and talk about through my platform. I just encourage anybody, live your truth, live your life. Be as good as you can for as long as you can. [Be as] patient as you can and kind as you can.” 

Plus Jan-Feb 2023

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