When Sheryl Lee Ralph started “Divas Simply Singing” in 1990, this diva had no idea she’d still be singing and leading the war on HIV/AIDS. The thought is staggering. “I never imagined we’d still be doing it 27 years later. In fact, I can’t believe it.”
This is a very personal battle for her. When AIDS hit, one of the first battlegrounds was Broadway, and Ralph saw it up close while creating the iconic role of Deena in the original production of “Dreamgirls.”
“I was very frightened by what I saw,” she says. “It was 1982, the early years of what we now know as AIDS. People started getting sick and then died inexplicably. Your friends would be sick today and dead tomorrow. There was no dying process like we’re used to now. There was no PrEP. There were just all kinds of poison medications that people were trying – trying to live, trying to survive. And so many just didn’t. It was just a horrible time. And to stand witness to such a horrible time really has molded me into the woman I’m still becoming.”
This is also when Sheryl Lee’s love affair with the gay community began. “It was amazing being on stage in ‘Dreamgirls’ and having the absolute love and adoration of people. But it was the way that gay men came out in support of the show. The way they said they identified with it – the girls fighting to just be themselves, fighting to live their lives as they are. It’s a relationship that has carried on throughout all these years. When I started advocating for HIV/AIDS awareness, there were some gay men who warned me that some people might turn on me, and that it wasn’t necessarily my fight. But for me, it was always my fight. It’s a human fight and if it could happen to those folks, it could happen to anybody. So the good fight is a good fight.”
The very first benefit started with a bang. “I was in a unique position because most of the performers were my friends. When you have to go through an agent or manager, it is much more difficult. But I remember making calls to friends and asking them to just show up and sing – or in the case of Debbie Allen, dance. I wanted everybody to come together and show a commitment to fight against HIV and AIDS. I honestly thought that we would have a cure or vaccine or something by now.”
“Divas Simply Singing” has the distinction of being the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the United States. And from day one, it always delivered a great show. That’s a challenge Ralph doesn’t take lightly. “Anytime you put on an event for over 25 years, there’s the danger of becoming old, too familiar, and having the community take you for granted.” Most years, it’s been in a concert hall. Two years ago, the show celebrated the 35th anniversary of “Dreamgirls” by re-opening the Ford Amphitheatre. Last year, the fundraiser was in Philadelphia, where Ralph lives part of the year with her husband, Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent Hughes. Earlier this year, she organized a fundraiser in NYC while appearing in “Wicked” on Broadway.
“This year, we thought we’d do something different and host the benefit in a venue that brings everyone closer together for maximum interaction and enjoyment.” It will take place at the Taglyan Cultural Center at 1201 Vine Street in Hollywood on Dec. 9. The evening will include a cocktail reception, an elegant dinner, and then a full concert. This year’s event honors Todrick Hall and includes performances by Jennifer Holliday and Thelma Houston.
One of the featured performers will be “Divas” mainstay Jenifer Lewis from “Black-ish,” who will also be autographing copies of her new memoir, “The Mother of Black Hollywood.” Ralph says, “I remember calling Jenifer for the first ‘Divas’ 27 years ago, and I can honestly say I only remember one time that she wasn’t there on stage with me. That says a lot about our friendship. It says a lot about her commitment. It says a lot about her as a woman.”
Each year, the audience looks forward to Sheryl Lee and Jenifer carrying on in that way longtime friends do. “We’ve known each other since we were about 19 years old, sharing one piece of apple pie at the Howard Johnson’s on Broadway ‘cuz we didn’t want to spend what little cash we had to buy a whole piece,” laughs Ralph.
Jenifer remembers it differently. “Nineteen? Maybe I was 19, but Sheryl is MUCH older than me. She had to have been 29 or 30. And I don’t remember her letting me have any of that pie! I turned around and it was gone! No, seriously, I adore her. We started out together as babies on Broadway and never looked back. Nobody works harder or deserves more praise than Sheryl Lee Ralph. Just don’t tell her I said so because onstage, I will wipe the floor with her and her two-dozen red dresses!”
The Diva Foundation is donating a portion of the proceeds to Project Angel Food, and the event will honor the many people who volunteer for this organization.
Divas Simply Singing
Saturday, Dec. 9, 6 p.m.
Taglyan Cultural Center
1201 Vine St., Hollywood.
For tickets, go to DivaTickets.com.