By Angela M. Coggs
Most people do not know that December 1, 2016 will mark the 31st annual World Aids Day. Over thirty years ago, a mysterious illness invaded the country. Doctors could not find anything to prescribe for the mystery illness because nobody knew exactly what it was. The world soon discovered the silent assassin was called HIV/AIDS. Once given a name, people who had contracted the disease were ostracized by many. The disrespect and lack of compassion for those HIV/AIDS patients inspired some people to help find a cure. One of those people was veteran actress of stage and screen, Sheryl Lee Ralph.
Just as AIDS commenced to devastate the United States in 1981, Sheryl Lee Ralph starred in the original production of the Broadway smash hit musical, “Dreamgirls.” That time in her life would be formative, and it would turn Ralph into one of the world’s preeminent AIDS activists.
An HIV/AIDS activist for over 25 years, Ralph has been in the forefront of why it is important to know ones status. Her activism began while she was performing on Broadway. “I witnessed so many people who were sick be treated horribly and with distain. People were hurtful to those who needed help,” said Ralph. She has memories of the friends she lost during that time. People talk about the success of “Dreamgirls” but you never hear how “we lost one third of our company to AIDS. It was devastating.”
Although HIV/AIDS has not been a current topic in the news anymore, the recent status report last year about actor Charlie Sheen recently diagnosed with HIV has brought HIV/Aids back to the forefront of a national conversation. Though Sheen’s recent status may be the reason why people are talking about HIV/AIDS again, Ralph doesn’t mind at all.
“As long as information regarding HIV/AIDS is being talked about openly means that people are once again aware and engaged.”
The loss of friends and witnessing the mistreatment of those afflicted inspired Ralph to get involved and be a voice for those who could not fight for themselves. That experience is what was to become the beginning of the DIVA (Driving Infectious Viruses Away) Foundation. With the success of the foundation, the Broadway actress took her activism to the next level by starting the DIVA’s Simply Singing Fundraiser Event.
DIVA’s Simply Singing Fundraiser is the longest consecutively running musical AIDS benefit fundraiser in the county to date. Last year the event was kicked off on August 27, 2015 in Philadelphia at the Del. Over 5,000 people attended the event. “It was wonderful to see all the people come out and be receptive to the message we delivered,” said Ralph. They were open the information and it is needed out there. “The South is a hotspot and no one realizes it.”
The fundraising event continued on October 25, 2015 in Los Angeles. The show will feature performances by some of the most talented DIVAS in entertainment, including Loretta Devine, Jennifer Lewis, A’ngela Winbush, Meli’sa Morgan, Shanice, CeCe Peniston, Jordin Sparks, the Supreme Mary Wilson, and more. The audience of donors packed the Montalban and supported the worthy cause. Not only were they donating to a worthy cause, but they were also treated to a magical night of entertainment and song. The DIVA’s Foundation in conjunction with World AIDS Day utilizes star power to help raise money, awareness and erase stigma associated with patients who have contracted the disease.
Unfortunately, the DIVA’s Simply Singing Fundraiser has been canceled. The star of Broadway’s original Dreamgirls made her debut in this season’s run of Wicked, one of Broadway’s longest running and praised productions, as Madame Morrible on Tuesday. Most notably, Ralph is the first African-American actress to take on the classic role. Regarding her groundbreaking return to Broadway, Ralph stated, “It’s so nice to be in a show that’s living forever.”
Proceeds from past benefit concerts have benefited organizations like Project Angel Food, Caring for Babies with AIDS and the Black AIDS Institute among others.
One hundred percent of the proceeds from “DIVAS Simply Singing!” support The DIVA Foundation’s awareness and prevention programs. The DIVA Foundation is a 501c 3 not for profit organization.
In addition to the DIVA outreach in the United States, Ralph recently visited South Africa and met a group of young women who are the definition of D.I.V.A. However, the dialogue of AIDS is as prevalent as we may think. “I was surprised that although South Africa is a hotspot for AIDS, it is still not talked about. It’s still a quiet secret.” Plans are currently in the works to expand the foundations outreach internationally.
The message that the DIVA Foundation wants to get out on World’s AIDS Day was for everyone to know their HIV status, be aware, and to put themselves first. In conjunction with providing important resources, DIVAS took a step closer to raising awareness by partnering with OraQuick, the 1st in-home rapid HIV test. It is a quick in-home that is easy to use. Understandably, some people do not get tested because they are afraid of needles and having their blood drawn. The OraQuick kit does not use needles but it uses a swab. The person swabs the inside of their cheek, places it in the receptacle, and twenty minutes later the person see the results. For those who may need to talk to someone regarding the results they received, OraQuick has a 24 hour technical/phone support counselors are available to answer question and address any concerns.
The counselors available via phone are only the first step. OraQuick and the DIVA Foundation maintain the importance contacting your regular doctor for any follow up as needed. Partnering with the DIVA’s Foundation, OraQuick goal is to provide 10,000 HIV test kits to people in underserved communities.
In 2015, Ralph was announced as the Event Ambassador for the Atlanta AIDS Walk. The invitation was a very welcomed surprise. “I was elated,” exclaimed Ralph. “The committee was aware of my years as a HIV/AIDS activist and they called me. I was honored to be chosen.” The 25th annual AIDS Walk Atlanta & 5K Run took place on Sunday; October 18th, 2015 raised more than $950,000.
Sheryl Lee Ralph is a force to be reckon with on the stage, film, television, and, most importantly, in the community. She is passionate about her work and she dedicated to spreading awareness to this, still, devastating virus. She pledges to work toward prevention until a cure can be found. Congratulations are surely in order for Sheryl Lee Ralph!