Sheryl Lee Ralph is a renowned actress-singer. For over three decades she’s impressed audiences with her immense talents on Broadway, television and the big screen. Ralph also devotes much of her time and talents as avid HIV/AIDS advocate. On Nov. 17 the University of Chicago will host her one woman show ‘Sometimes I Cry’ as part of their 2nd Annual SHINE Conference. Sheryl Lee Ralph spoke exclusively with the Chicago Defender about her show and extensive work with women of African descent who are infected by HIV and AIDS.
Chicago Defender: Why did you choose to the name the piece Sometimes I Cry?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Because most times life is really good, and we carry on even when it gets bad. The when bad things happen, sometimes we cry.
CD: Explain how you were inspired to write the piece.
SLR: In the summer of 2002, I began to see how the rate of HIV infection in women was starting to match that of men. I happen to be travelling across the country, and I was hearing all of these women’s stories. It had always been my fear that if sex could have been a problem for men, women couldn’t be too far behind. So, once I discovered this fact about women, I was in shock. And there was the same [public] silence when gay men first started becoming infected and dropping dead. But this time the silence was thicker and deeper for women – particularly women of color. That’s why I had to do something.
CD: Who are some of the women you portray in the show?
SLR: The monologues are all based on real women and real stories. I take their stories and I fictionalize them. The first character I wrote is called Ms. Channel. Ms. Channel is based upon on a woman in Chicago – Rae Lewis-Thornton. When I saw Rae on the cover of Essence Magazine and the caption said ‘The New Face of AIDS’, I was taken aback. Then I [saw her again] on a speaking engagement somewhere down South. This young beautiful woman – about the same age as I – was wearing this beautiful winter white Channel suit. When she told her story, it stunned the room to silence. I never forgot that, and [her story] became the impetus for the first monologue. Then there’s Precious. Precious lives in California. After living a life full of bad choices, she literally bought a gun and tried to shoot herself. But it didn’t go as planned. She ended up wearing a scar across her face. Then there’s my African sister…from Kenya. And she told how she buried her sister in the red dirt of Africa. She said, ‘People would forget, but I will never forget.’ And I never forgot that line. So, those are just some of the women.
CD: What other HIV/AIDS advocacy work do you employ?
SLR: Twenty-two years ago, I founded the DIVA Foundation – Divinely Inspired Victoriously AIDS Aware. The foundation is a memorial to the many friends I’ve lost to AIDS. It started when I was an original company member of Dreamgirls on Broadway. Out of that, I’ve produced the longest running consecutive musical AIDS benefit in the country – Divas’ Simply Singing. On World Aids Day (12.1.12) at Club Nokia in Los Angeles…once again the Divas will gather together on the mic. The Divas sing one song, and it’s one voice at a time to raise awareness around HIV/AIDS. I’ve also created a line of socially responsible T-shirts – Red Ribbon Diva – where we put a red ribbon on T-shirts. A lot of people have forgotten the red ribbon stands for HIV/AIDS awareness. I actually won the Red Ribbon award at the United Nations for creating artful and artistic ways of combating HIV/AIDS. My husband, State Senator Vincent Hughes, and I created http://www.testtogether.org. This website is designed for couples (lovers, parents and children, friends, any type of couple) to get tested together. You can enter your zip code on the website, and a number of HIV/AIDS testing locations pop up. Many of the [testing sites] are free. So, those are just some of the other advocacy efforts I’ve been doing over these past 22 years.
CD: In the wake of the recent 2012 election, how do you feel our legislators can better serve combating and raising awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic through policy?
SLR: My husband I put up images of ourselves on billboards and buses throughout the city of Philadelphia a few years ago with words that simply said, ‘We Got Tested, Know Your Status’. The impact of that alone really made people go out there and know their status. So, I wish more legislators stepped up to the table and did those simply things. Let people know, we have to get you tested. Your health is your greatest wealth. And I wish a lot more [legislators] would just start saying it. When President Obama said the big plan is health and education, I wish more legislators would start telling people, ‘Look we’ve got to get America smart again. We’ve got to get Americans healthy. We can not have a sick dumb America. There are going to be millions of jobs coming up in the future, and we’re not going to be healthy enough and educated enough to take them.’ Those are simply statements that must be said out loud.
CD: Have you travelled to other countries – specifically in Africa and the Caribbean – to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS?
SLR: Another one of the programs that I created out of the DIVA Foundation is called ‘The Sister’s Circle’. About six years ago I said to myself ,’If women of African descent in America are being hugely impacted by this disease: 1) Why is no one bringing her to the table, 2) Why is she not demanding a table for herself, and 3) Why are these women whose rate of infection are beginning to match those of sub-Saharan Africa not being brought together?’ At the time, we couldn’t bring African women to the United States because there was a ban against people who were infected. So, I created the ‘Sister’s Circle’. I brought together about 35 HIV positive infected and effected women from the United States, and flew them to South Africa to meet with about 127 HIV infected and effected women in the township of Cape Town. And when these women came together, it was amazing. The type of healing that can take place when you don’t even speak the same language, but are walking the same road and share the same cause. As a result of that, we have been working with some of those HIV positive women in South Africa who have incredible talent but are challenged greatly by the disease. They are challenged, but have great talent in beadwork. Sometimes people see me with their beaded earrings…that’s because we support through micro-financing. That means we buy the beadwork from the South African women. And when people make a donation to us, they get the beadwork in a gift. So, that is another project we’ve done with women in different countries.
Also under the Bush administration, G.W Bush sent me to Botswana, Namibia, Cape Town South Africa, and two other South African nations performing my one-woman show [Sometimes I Cry]. And I remember thinking at that time, ‘How can my country figure out what to do with me outside of my country, but can not make the same way for me in my great nation – the United States of America.’
As far as the Caribbean, President Clinton gathered me and some others at his office in Harlem some years back. He wanted to do a major push with his Clinton Foundation in the West Indies. I said to him, “Mr. President, we can not even get people in the West Indies to talk about homosexuality. We can’t get our churches to have this conversation because for many of them, AIDS is still a gay disease. We all [in this room] should know that the number one way people of color – of African descent – are catching this disease is through heterosexual sex. So until we can have this conversation out loud, what are we really doing?’ I will never forget the look that he gave me like we weren’t supposed to be talking about that right now. Well, that was then – years ago – but we are still there (in a lot of ways) in the same place when it comes to the islands because we have not had certain conversations. Until we do that, we will have little movement on this disease. Too many women will become infected needlessly. Too many children will own this disease. In places like Trinidad, the numbers are off the charts and it shouldn’t be that way.