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From award — winning actress to altruistic activist, Sheryl Lee Ralph continues to be seen and heard. Though 50 — year — old Ralph remains a respected face in Hollywood, her top priority is HIV/AIDS advocacy. Her efforts, spanning 16 years, include fundraising and awareness initiatives such as an annual benefit, Divas Simply Singing!, and a thought — provoking one — woman show. To date, she has raised nearly $5 million. BLACK ENTERPRISE caught up with Ralph, a celebrity spokeswoman for The National Minority AIDS Council, to hear more about her dedicated mission.
During the 80s you starred in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls. You say this experience led to your involvement in HIV/AIDS activism. How?
It was a very, very difficult time. So many men started dying up and down Broadway [from the disease]. Friends would get sick and die, and folks would say nothing or they would talk about them like they hadn’t been a child of God. I said to myself, “You’ve got to do something.”
Looking at the alarming statistics, especially for African American women, what needs to be done to stop this epidemic?
There needs to be a major rise in self — esteem. Women have got to value themselves and rate themselves highly so that they do everything they need to do to make sure they are well taken care of: to insist that men wear condoms, to insist that they carry condoms. We live in America, where women at least have the power to pursue their own happiness. You know, it’s your right to be joyful.
Is this honestly a battle that can be won?
Oh, absolutely. People may die all the time, but one of the last things to die is hope. You’ve got to have hope that the right thing will be done. You’ve got to have hope that people will do right by each other. If you don’t have hope, then what do you have? People have it within their hands to change the direction of this disease.
How did this become your main concern?
Well, first of all I’m a mother. And I always say, if you won’t do it for yourself then do it for your children. This disease is not going anywhere. It’s staying right here with us. And it’s a mutant disease so trust me, it’s going to mutate into something else and after AIDS it’s going to be something far more terrible.
The concept of your one — woman show came about while you were on the road with Phill Wilson, the founder of the Black AIDS Institute. What was your inspiration?
There were so many stories that I heard from women who were infected with the disease. I was like, “Wow! These are the same stories you would have heard back in the 80s except it was men at that time. Why is no one running, screaming, pulling their hair out, demanding help and attention? And why aren’t these women’s stories being told?” That was three years ago; today the stories still aren’t being told!
What will it take for that to
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