In Anna Devere Smith’s book, Letters to a Young Artist, she defines presence as the following:
“Presence is having something that you are wired to do, that you are committed to do, so committed to do it that’s it’s almost like it’s in your DNA. It’s being ready at all times and looking for every possible opportunity.”
For the past 30 years, actress-singer-philanthropist, Sheryl Lee Ralph has possessed this type of presence.
Through her DIVA Foundation, Ralph has raised both capital and awareness for those disproportionately infected and affected with HIV-AIDS. Her signature fundraiser, Divas Simply Singing is the longest consecutive running musical benefiting HIV-AIDS in the country. She is ready at all times and usually seizes every opportunity to speak out against the stigma individuals’ with the virus face.
Now she is raising her voice once again as the new spokesperson for the Names Foundation Campaign for HIV-AIDS entitled, Call My Name. This new initiative is traveling the country in an attempt to add more minority names to the National AIDS Memorial Quilt.
I recently caught up with the original ‘dreamgirl’ to talk about her involvement and her new book, entitled, Redefining Diva!
RC: You are the new Spokesperson for the Names Foundation “Call My Name” Campaign for HIV-AIDS? Let’s talk about this new initiative.
SLR: First of all, it’s so very important! Being involved with this whole fight for the past 30 years, I’ve seen how it’s [HIV-AIDS] grown and changed. And so this national AIDS quilt is sort of like a beautiful memorial of those that have transitioned on that continues to grow in beauty, sadly. You know?
And I asked “how much of the quilt is represented by people of color?” Well the answer startled me. Of this 50 mile quilt of names, only a half a mile is represented by us! A half a mile!
I said, “Something about that has to change.” That to me was indicative of so many things.You don’t get help because you don’t speak up! You don’t get help because you don’t show up! You don’t get help because you don’t fight for yourself. So when I thought about this quilt, I thought of that old spiritual. Hush! Hush! Somebody’s Calling My Name. So here we are with Call My Name!
RC: Are you still touring your one-woman show about HIV-AIDS called Sometimes I Cry?
SLR: I’m actually doing my show here at Towson University in Maryland. All I do with the piece is tell the real stories of real women infected and affected by HIV-AIDS. It’s actually drawing more and more people. I just had a meeting with a group of guys and they were like, “When are you going to tell my story?” And I was like, “Oh wow!” Maybe it’s time for me too! LOL
RC: If Beyonce’s definition of a diva is a “female hustler,” then what is Sheryl Lee Ralph’s definition?
SLR: Unless she’s hustling philanthropy or for the greater good of other people. If she’s hustling for big hair and attitude, wrong diva!
Sheryl Lee’s definition is of a diva is Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware! Now if we were in church, she would be Divinely Inspired Victoriously Anointed! But you can learn more about that in my new book called, Redefining Diva!
RC: Awesome! Let’s talk about it…
SLR: Yeah, I started writing this book about two years ago. You know there is just too much bad behavior going on, especially when it comes to women. And young women have to know that women in so many ways are the foundation of society. You know, men have a habit of going wrong but when women start making poor choices, it’s very bad for society.
So I wanted young women to know that there are options! You can make better choices for your life. And I really used my life and the things that I have gone through and how I have overcome and carried on. And what is it that you might be able to glean from my experiences. And I talk about the good, the bad and the ugly. Although somebody said, “the ugly would look pretty good.” LOL
The book is available now on amazon.com and distributed by Simon and Schuster. My publication drop date is March 13th. But we need all the pre-orders we can get right now.
RC: You recently celebrated the 30th Anniversary of Dreamgirls this past December 21, 2011? Why do you think audiences are still drawn to the show?
SLR: Yes! I think it’s the storyline. Dreamgirls is forever about the pursuit of happiness and reaching one’s dreams. People love that. Everyone has a dream that they want to come true. And it’s an incredible score. It’s one of the best workout videos ever! LOL[youtube id=”CKjSaXIx5h4″ width=”600″ height=”350″]
RC: You are very passionate about Black women taking responsibility for their own destinies? Why is this so important for you at this stage in your career?
SLR: It always has been. Number one, I am one. Number two, because I am the daughter of one. Number three, because I have a daughter of my own. And it’s very important as a woman to be able to speak now so that you can be able to speak again. I think, Zora Neal Hurston said that. If you don’t do it, who’s gonna do it for you.
RC: This past year, you honored the lives of Vesta Williams and Teena Marie at Divas Simply Singing. How special was that?
SLR: You know something? That to me was really special. It just shows you how very, very really short life is. Before we did that one there was also another memorial of another woman that worked with us. Her name was Chelsea.
I took a group of women, infected and affected from the United States to meet with women who were infected and affected in South Africa. It had been such a moving experience of growth and understanding. And when we came back, we were all sitting there thinking, “Who of those amongst the groups of infected women wouldn’t be there with us when we met again the next two years?” By the time we had landed, Chelsea had died. And we were like OMG. Life is so short.
So to have “Divas” happen and within a year, two of the women who were of great support were both dead. Once again, life is short. And then you die. You just never know when death, like sleep, will come.
RC: Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have both received Oscar nominations for their roles in the movie, “The Help.” Do you think this will be the year that we see two African-American actresses win in both categories for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress?
SLR: Absolutely! Absolutely! And you can mark my word on that! You can mark my word on that. It will be this year that history is made. It’s never happened before, until now.