Just as AIDS began to ravage New York City in 1981, Sheryl Lee Ralph starred in the original production of the Broadway smash Dreamgirls. That time in her life would be formative, and it would turn Ralph into one of the world’s preeminent AIDS activists. After many years of fundraising and speaking out, her fight to end stigma and raise money for treatment and prevention of HIV continues.
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, 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.
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