One after another, Sheryl Lee Ralph watched helplessly as her closest friends died of AIDS. At the time, the early 1980s, the actress was starring as Deena Jones in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls. Many of her castmates were among the casualities of the disease.
Little was known about AIDS back then, except that the outcome was usually fatal. Ralph was compelled to get involved in what appeared to be a losing battle after burying so many of the people she loved.
“I saw my friends get sick and die,” Ralph recalls. “There was no HIV; it was just AIDS. In fact, I remember when it was called GRID, [the acronym for] gay-related immune deficiency. Some people would say, ‘It’s just a gay man’s cancer,’ which to me was never quite the right reference because I also saw women who were infected.”
She didn’t sit idly by and watch; she decided to do something about it. In 1990, Ralph founded the Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware (DIVA) Foundation as a way to demonstrate what she calls “artistic activism.” She hoped to leverage her entertainment connections to spread awareness and erase the stigma attached to both those suffering and those willing to help.
A quarter century later, her foundation provides HIV testing, hosts prevention seminars and raises funds via an annual benefit concert, DIVAS Simply Singing!. Ralph, 58, also performs a one-woman show, Sometimes I Cry, which shares the real-life stories of women battling the virus.
Read more in the June 2015 issue of EBONY Magazine.