Artistry: Artist Feature
Brave Soul Artist: Sheryl Lee Ralph

October 10, 2006 Print version       Other articles by this author

Our Brave Soul Artist Feature for October is not only a Broadway legend, television & film star, but a humanitarian in her own right.
You know, for me truth is everything on a certain level. I've modeled my career by doing the roles that I felt my family could be most proud of. They could look at me and say...that's my daughter, that's my sister, that's my granddaughter that's my mommy. I live for those moments. That's me.

Triple threat DREAMGIRL, Sheryl Lee Ralph is an acclaimed veteran of film, television and the Broadway stage.
Her award winning body of work includes originating and creating the role of Deena Jones on Broadway in the landmark musical Dreamgirls, which earned her a Tony Award Nomination and a Drama Desk Award Nomination for Best Actress.

After Dreamgirls, Ms. Ralph turned her attention to music, television and film. She scored a top-ten selling dance hit in the mid-eighties with the infectious anthem In the Evening. On television, she has starred in It's a Living, her own series New Attitude, the George Foreman series George and as Anthony's wife in the hit comedy Designing Women. Voted one of TV's Favorite Moms for her portrayal of step mom with the mostest, Dee on the number-one rated UPN television series Moesha. In the SHOWTIME series, Barbershop, she breaks new ground as the popular, post-operative transsexual, Claire. In April, Sheryl brought a new face to the sufferings of WAR in the NBC hit series ER.

Her extensive film credits include Sister Act II, The Flintstones, The Mighty Quinn with Denzel Washington, Mistress with Robert De Niro, and Eddie Murphy's Distinguished Gentleman. Sheryl Lee's performance with Danny Glover in To Sleep With Anger won her the Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actress.

As a producer, Ms. Ralph created the critically acclaimed Divas Simply Singing!, an evening of song and entertainment that has become one of the most highly anticipated AIDS benefits in Hollywood. She is also the founding creator of The Jamerican Film & Music Festival which in five years has given birth to five SHOWTIME Filmmaker Finalists.

Sheryl Lee has found new success in writing and directing with her award-winning film short Secrets. With an all-star cast that includes Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard, Tina Lifford, Victoria Rowell, La Tanya Richardson, Robin Givens and Ralph herself. Secrets was a finalist in the HBO Film Short Competition, Showtime Filmmakers Series, Acapulco Black Film Festival, Hollywood Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival, Urban World Film Festival and an audience favorite at Outfest Film Festival. Now, Ms. Ralph has added a one-woman show Sometimes I Cry, about the lives, loves, and losses of women infected and affected by HIV/AIDS to her list of credits.

Mother of two Sheryl Lee loves every moment of raising her children. Recently married to State Senator Vincent Hughes of Pennsylvania in what Entertainment Tonight called, "The most elegant and romantic wedding of the summer!" she acknowledges love is the greatest gift to be given and shared.

I had the opportunity to meet, work, and bond with Sheryl Lee Ralph during the World AIDS Conference in Toronto, earlier this year. What I witnessed while hearing her speak at numerous engagements was a kind of passion that is virtually non-existent when one normally speaks about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Upon learning about Brave Soul Collective, Ms. Ralph was extremely supportive of our mission. She graciously accepted our offer to be a Brave Soul Artist feature, and granted us an interview which was conducted late last month in Hollywood, Florida at the United States Conference on AIDS, where Ms. Ralph had just finished a breathtaking performance of her one woman show, Sometimes I Cry.

With that said, we proudly present to all of our Brave Soul family, the warm, funny, and talented DIVA, Sheryl Lee Ralph. I would personally like to thank not only Ms. Ralph, but her project coordinator Scott Hamilton for helping to make the interview happen. Enjoy......

How much of a link do you feel there is between the arts and activism?

"I think there's a natural link between the two. Anytime you have the public's attention on any level and you're able to affect change with that attention. That's a wonderful gift. It's almost as though sometimes I feel's so weird I was on the plane and someone looked at me and the guy said to me...he said "You're...Sheryl Lee Ralph...You are an ...act.." And I thought he was getting ready to say actor, and he said "you are an activist." I was like "Yeah"....he said.... "You're an AIDS activist , you're a human rights activist." And I was like...Wow..what a know? he's right.

Since you've worked in television, film, and theatre, which medium do you enjoy most and why?

I love the stage, because it's human and it's immediate, and I love instant gratification. If I'm good, TELL ME SO! "Gimme my cookies NOW!" So yeah, I love the stage.

What does it mean to you be an artist?

I get to do something for the most part that I would for free. Thank God I don't have to all the time, but I have a form that I can work in that brings me such JOY. Most people will never know what that is, most folks will just have a job or a career, or something they do to make money. I have something that I do that brings me joy and I'm able to affect change through what it is I do. As well as give people enjoyment, for the most part I enjoy it. That's what it means for me. When I stand up on stage, and it's something I've written, and performed, I'm amazed. It's like "WHOAAA". Sometimes I'm like amazed. And people stand up... Unbelievable.

How long have you been an activist, spokesperson and advocate for HIV/AIDS issues and what initially sparked your desire to get involved?

I think for me it all started back in the 80's with Dreamgirls. Dreamgirls was what started the whole thing. I think it was being the eyewitness to what I consider one of the ugliest times in America. Seeing hate in real action. Seeing it in people's humanity towards each other. Just rise up and live. I couldn't believe what I was seeing sometimes. I couldn't believe that I was hearing, what I was hearing sometimes, and I was afraid. Being a child of the sixties, it was like, you were expecting more. You were expecting the dream to come over the mountaintop and all of that. You were expecting something better. And here it was I was seeing something so ugly. And it was death and it was not pretty. I couldn't let my friends dying be in vain. I couldn't let it be an ugly remembrance like they didn't matter. They DID matter. They were good, kind, and wonderful, talented people. That's what I knew, and that's what I wanted people to know and remember.

Our Brave Soul Collective topic of the month for October is spirituality and religion. In your opinion, how much of a role has religion played in the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its impact on the black community as a whole?

I don't think it's played enough of a role. My faith is important to me. As a Christian, I can never ever forget that Christ lived to serve those who were not being served- the poor, the sick, the children, women-people who had been marginalized and stigmatized for whatever reason. He went to be of aid & assistance to them. When the lepers had nobody to come and care and see about them, he went. Are they not my people too? He was there, and I always remember those things about him. He wasn't dressing up to look fancy to make sure he was in the in the synagogue every Sunday in the front pew, to be seen. He was there barefoot, at times talking the talk that got him crucified. Because he cared for others, they let a murdering madman go free, and crucified the one they knew was innocent, because he said can't we all just get along? I can only say, stop actin like a Christian and be one. Remember that slogan WWJD--- WHAT WOULD JESUS DO? He'd probably do things a lot differently. Some folks are still waiting for him to come, and every time we've crucified him. So who didn't get the message? Obviously it's us.

How do you feel about the downlow phenomenon and the way it's been glamorized by the media in recent years? Do you believe the DL is responsible for the increase in the number of HIV infections for black women, as has been suggested by some?

It is a waste of time. Every time we discuss that as an issue, we are losing precious moments to combat the REAL issue. Let's talk about what's really going on. Why DO some brothers choose that lifestyle? What is it that we have not talked about openly and up front with them about?

How do you go about dividing your time between your work as an artist, an activist, as well as a mother & wife? Has it been challenging to strike a balance between your work and personal lives?

It's very challenging. Very, very challenging, because no matter what I do, no matter what amount of time I spend away from home my children really miss me and that's hard. I like my kids so much, it's fun to be around them. It's hard for us when we're not all in the same place. Sometimes they go with me, just so they get an idea of what its like know? But that's really hard. My husband and I commute. He lives in Pennsylvania, and I live in LA. He's a politician, and I'm myself, so he's not leaving his job, I'm not leaving mine. So we have to find time together, and I thank God that we share certain interests like the AIDS activism where we're able to have a meeting of the minds and a meeting of ourselves on the road to do what we have to do, but it's a big challenge.

How important are integrity and truth to you as they pertain to the kind of work you choose to involve yourself with, whether related to activism or artistry?

You know, for me truth is everything on a certain level. I've modeled my career by doing the roles that I felt my family could be most proud of. They could look at me and say...that's my daughter, that's my sister, that's my granddaughter that's my mommy. I live for those moments. That's me. As far as with "Sometimes I Cry", that's MY TRUTH. You know everybody has their truth, but I feel that by saying the truth, sometimes the truth is hard. Some folks don't want to hear it. Some of the stuff said in "Sometimes I Cry" is ugly, but its truth, it's what really goes on, and I think that sometimes just saying it just frees me and maybe it frees other people by being able to hear it and receive it. Truth is hard sometimes.

After years of work on Broadway, film, television, and in activism what kind of advice can you share with young aspiring artists?

To thine ownself, to thine own audience, be TRUE. You know? You gotta do your thing. Get it out there. There is an audience for everything. Also be careful what you wish for cause you just might get it.
Emphasis on natural connection between us as people, the damaging effects of silence are just a couple of the themes that run through your one woman show, "Sometimes I Cry". Can you discuss the importance of these two factors as they relate to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and their effects on the lives of us as a people?
You know you can't talk about what you don't know. We really need to get to know each other, cause obviously there's a lot of not knowing about each other going on right about now, which is why we're suffering. This silence has got to stop. We have got to talk to each other. Truly our lives are dependent upon it. Women talk to your men, men talk to your women, parents talk to your children, and children talk to your parents. It's imperative now.

How has performing activist related art affected, changed, or impacted your career as an actress?

Oddly enough, some of the latest work I've gotten is as a result of this piece, and also it seems as though my whole career has led me to this moment of writing, directing and producing myself in this piece. If somebody had told me 25 years ago this is what I'd be doing, I'd have said "Unh unh ...I'm gonna have a talk show."

What is one interesting and/or funny thing that people would be shocked to learn about you?

I love the Parliament Funkadelic and I am a funketeer. YES I AM!

For more information on Sheryl Lee Ralph, please visit any of the following: