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As Friends Died of AIDS, Sheryl Lee Ralph Knew She Had to Get Involved

'People wanted to act like it wasn't happening,' actress says in 30th year of activism

spinner image Sheryl Lee Ralph attends American Black Film Festival Honors Awards Ceremony at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 23, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California.
Leon Bennett / Stringer / Getty Images

Sheryl Lee Ralph, 63, pops up on Zoom wearing a bejeweled headband and a bright smile.

You probably know her from her star turn in Broadway's Dreamgirls, her six-season run on Moesha, and her recent roles on Ray Donovan and Claws. But she's been equally busy as an activist, whose West Hollywood-based Diva Foundation has been raising money to help people with HIV and AIDS.

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This December marks the 30th anniversary of her benefit, Divas Simply Singing! Since 1990 it has provided acceptance and support to people with HIV and AIDS and those who love them.

You've extended your annual Diva Foundation benefit from one night to a full week of programming and a Dec. 5 concert.

Yes, this pandemic gave me time to pause, pivot and plan, and I did what I've always done. I picked up the phone and called people, and if I couldn't get them, I called them again.

With so many artists on lockdown, more were available and could contribute from where they are. The depth of the generosity has been amazing as is the quality of the talent: Leslie Odom Jr., Brian Stokes Mitchell, Stephanie Mills, Lalah Hathaway. … We're honoring Patti LaBelle and Sharon Stone.

[On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, Ralph is leading an 8 to 9 p.m. ET town hall, sponsored by AARP, about aging, HIV and the LGBTQ community.]

Did the pandemic coming out of nowhere this year remind you in any way of the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s?

There are so many correlations. Some people's initial reaction to both was: “This has nothing to do with me. It's those people.” There is the difficulty of getting people to wear masks, which was akin to the difficulty of getting people to wear condoms — both proven barriers to a virus.

I remember working in the New York arts scene back then, and people started dying around us.

Yes! On Dec. 20, 1981, I made my debut in Dreamgirls, the biggest hit on Broadway. I was in the midst of the greatest time of my life, but friends up and down Broadway, and in our show, too, started getting sick and not showing up.

They were in the hospital, and then they were dead. People wanted to act like it wasn't happening or that it didn't matter.

I said, “Oh, no, we have to do better.” And that's how I got involved with this disease that was blowing out lives like candles on a birthday cake.

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Where are we today with HIV/AIDS compared to when you hosted the first benefit in 1990?

Medication has come a long way. I wrote a one-woman show, Sometimes I Cry [inspired by real women living with HIV/AIDS].

Back then, people were taking 84 pills a week. That's been drastically reduced. Now we have medication that, if taken properly, helps prevent people from contracting the virus.

But the silence and shame loom large. There are people who still have not told their family or friends because they can't talk about it. We have to work hard to reduce the stigma.

You once said that your mother did virtual fundraisers back in the day. How did that work?

She would get that Jamaican mint, which tastes so good, and put the teabags in the mail. All she asked was if they made a cup of tea with it that they also send back a donation.

She raised money for several organizations. Now here we are on a much larger scale, saying if you love the entertainment for the Divas Simply Singing! concert, which you can watch on your TV, phone or computer, then by all means make a donation. The funds will help those in need through Project Angel Food and Better Brothers Los Angeles.

[Project Angel Food delivers medically tailored meals to terminally ill people in Los Angeles County. Better Brothers Los Angeles provides a community and support to Black LGBTQ people in the L.A. area. Both are nonprofit organizations.

[Charity Navigator rates Project Angel Food at its highest four stars but does not assess Better Brothers Los Angeles because it receives less than $200,000 in donations. Better Brothers LA's most recent Form 990 available from the IRS shows about $75,000 in donations in 2017.]

Did your mother's altruism inspire you to follow in her footsteps?

There's a commercial that says we can't help but become our parents. I could not help it.

We lived in a house where I could look downstairs through a glass door and see behind it the leader of our church, the mayor of the city, teachers, a superintendent, the movers and shakers. People [were] there to talk about how to make things better.

I heard bits and pieces of those conversations about being intentional and creating change. It's interesting now to see my children and niece doing the same thing.

How will you celebrate the holidays this year?

Let me tell you something: Every day is thanks and giving day. Every day is Christmas. My family will be in quarantine, but I'll put up a nice wreath because I like a nice wreath, and I'll put up lights because my favorite color is bling.

Pamela K. Johnson is a writer and filmmaker now living in Southern California.

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