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Sheryl Lee Ralph's Dreamgirls Role Shaped Her Destiny as an HIV and LGBTQ+ Activist

Sheryl Lee Ralph's Dreamgirls Role Shaped Her Destiny as an HIV and LGBTQ+ Activist

<p>Sheryl Lee Ralph's <em>Dreamgirls</em> Role Shaped Her Destiny as an HIV and LGBTQ+ Activist</p>
Getty Images

Getty Images

Ralph, one of our Advocates of the Year, recently said, "nobody ever mentioned the fact that we lost a third of our original [Dreamgirls] company to AIDS."

Though her ageless beauty tells us otherwise, Sheryl Lee Ralph has earned herself an admirable showbiz career that has spanned over four decades now — and she’s been a fierce ally in the fight against HIV/AIDS and its stigma for just 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, television shows, and stage productions including Sister Act 2, Moesha, Barbershop, and To Sleep With Anger. Last year, she was recognized with an Emmy Award for her role as seen-it-all teacher Barbara Howard in the popular ABC series Abbott Elementary.

However, just when her career started to blow up in the early ’80s, sadly, so did the AIDS epidemic — and Ralph witnessed firsthand the suffering and devastating loss of life in those dark early days. But the young actress quickly worked to turn tragedy into change. She founded the DIVA Foundation in 1990, which raises funds for HIV causes, and is particularly 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.

“Let me tell you about December 20, 1981,” she said in June when accepting the inaugural Sheryl Lee Ralph Legacy Award from Project Angel Food, a food delivery service for people living with HIV that Ralph has contributed to for decades. “I made my Broadway debut in what has become the iconic musical of the ’80s…. And out of all the wonderful things we did with Dreamgirls, nobody ever mentioned the fact that we lost a third of our original company to AIDS.”

In closing her speech, Ralph added, “I’ll never forget a church took the time to write me a letter and tell me that God would find no favor in me because of talking about that AIDS thing. I stood on stage, I held my son — he was all of maybe two years old — and I said no matter what, God gave me a healthy child and I would love him gay or straight, and someone stood up and said, ‘What kind of hypocrite are you that would stand up and say out loud that you would love a gay son?’ But something in me said we have got to use our voices to speak up about this.”

These days Ralph is also expanding her clout behind the scenes as a director and producer. A documentary she co-produced, Unexpected, hit the film festival circuit earlier this and received much critical acclaim. The film focuses on the personal stories of young Black women affected by HIV.

“Some time ago... I had written a one-woman show called Sometimes I Cry,Ralph recently told our sister publication, Plus, explaining her motivations for making a documentary on women and HIV. “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.”

“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,” she added. “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.”

Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series: 74th Emmy

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