'Sometimes I Cry': An Activist's Stage Plea

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Ed Gordon talks with actress, producer and AIDS activist Sheryl Lee Ralph about her one-woman show, Sometimes I Cry. The show tells the stories of several women from very different backgrounds and cultures who have one thing in common: they are each infected with HIV or have AIDS.

ED GORDON, host:

This month marks 25 years since the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS among gay men in Los Angeles and New York.

Ms. SHERYL LEE RALPH (Actress; Producer; AIDS Activist): Men up and down the Broadway just started dropping down from some mystery disease, the little disease with no name, the disease that we now all know as HIV/AIDS. They just started dropping dead. Sick today, dead tomorrow. And the silence would set in, that deadly silence. Shhhh! Nobody wanted to talk about it, much less do anything about that disease, that - Shhhh! - that gay disease.

Huh. Such an ugly time in America. A time when good people, righteous people, Christian people, took comfort in passing judgment and pointing fingers at they, them, and those people, saying, that's what they deserve! God will fix them!

Twenty-five years later, those same fingers, when they look in the mirror those fingers are pointing right back at them. Because we now all know somebody who's been infected, or affected, by that - Shhhh! That gay - Shhhh! That human disease: HIV/AIDS.

GORDON: That includes women who are being impacted by the disease in rapidly growing numbers. Veteran actress, producer, and AIDS activist Sheryl Lee Ralph has written a one-woman show called Sometimes I Cry. It tells the real life stories of women both infected and affected by HIV-AIDS. Sheryl explains how this show came to be.

Ms. RALPH: When I was doing Dreamgirls on Broadway back in 1981, I will never forget the fact that at that time, you know, a few guys came down with symptoms of a disease that when people really heard about it or if others were diagnosed with it this silence came over. And it was a deadening silence.

And then, you know, people stood in judgment and pointed fingers. Ooh, they didn't want to be associated with that, or they didn't want to talk about that. And I always felt badly that some of my friends were just shunned, pushed aside, or people acted like they hadn't been there, like they weren't great people, the great people that they were. And I hated that deafening silence.

And now, some 25 years later, I'm experiencing what I think is the same silence as it pertains to this disease - HIV/AIDS - and women, especially women of color. And I just couldn't let it happen again. I just couldn't do it. I said uh-uh, we've got to raise our voices, because I remember those signs: silence equals death.

GORDON: Sheryl Lee, you mentioned the idea of how this disease has really ravaged the African-American community, and in particular African-American women. It is amazing to me that we are seeing the kinds of numbers, infections and deaths of black women in the sense that this is a disease that we've been talking about for a while, but for some reason we've not been able to convey the real seriousness of the problem.

Ms. RALPH: I was just shocked when I heard that in 2003 the rate of infection in women, especially women of color, began to match that of men. I was like, wait a minute! What are we not getting? What are we not seeing? And I said, you know, I need a revolution. I need a movement. I need women to understand that they cannot dissipate their power. They must consolidate the power and stop this way of living their sexual life, because it's killing them.

GORDON: Mm-hmm. The stories that you tell in this play, are they stories of women, people that you've known?

Ms. RALPH: Yeah, they're all women I've met. The summer of 2003, Phil Wilson, who founded the Black AIDS Institute, asked me to come out and speak on the road with him about AIDS, you know, in cites where it wasn't on the blip scale. People were not talking about it. And he said, you know, we need a face and we need a voice to bring attention to this, so I went out with him.

And I was just so shocked at how many stories that I heard from women - women of color and, you know, they were stories that were laced with violence, self-esteem issues, mental wellness, mental illness, I mean, deceit. I was just, oh my God, what is going on here, and what are we not saying? Because his is much more than just HIV/AIDS, this is a way of living. And this way has got to change, because I know God didn't put us down here for this. He wants something better for us.

GORDON: Sheryl Lee, how do you take on what is, I would suspect, an emotional roller coaster on so many nights, and what has it done to you personally?

Ms. RALPH: Sometimes, Ed, it's difficult. I think, as a performer, you know, you bring it all in and it becomes you. In some ways, it consumes you. You have to be - as the artist, you have to be the sponge. You have to be able to feel these characters' pain. You have to feel the bittersweet of their laughter into their tears. You have to experience the embarrassment that they feel with some of the things that they have to go through, or the degradation that they might have been through that have brought them to a certain point in their life. And sometimes that's hard.

I - there have been certain shows that, after the show, you know, we always conclude with a question and answer to keep the dialogue moving forward and making sure that audience members don't leave without a renewed sense of purpose or commitment to how they can make a change to stem the tide of infection as it pertains to this disease. And some nights, I am crying and it's like, whoo, it takes me a moment to shed it and become Sheryl Lee again.

GORDON: Let me ask you this as a personal note, and as I said, just so people will have the background. I've known you a very long time, and the one thing I know that you have always been on the ground, doing for others. I know that you have a tremendous toy drive in Los Angeles...

Ms. RALPH: Yes.

GORDON: ...for underprivileged kids. You've been doing that for years. What is it about your background, your heart, your family that surrounded you, that has afforded you the opportunity and the blessing to go out there and work? Because so often, particularly people in show business, they get caught up in their career and don't necessarily look to do the other things.

Ms. RALPH: Honestly, Ed, I believe I was raised to give back. I was raised to bring someone else along. My family always believed that to whom much is given, much is expected. That because I can, I must make sure that somebody else can.

And I'll never forget when I was a little girl, my father - we were watching Mr. Magoo, Scrooge's Christmas, and Mr. Magoo at the very end, the ghost of Christmas to come opened his cloak, and there were twins. And one was hunger and one was ignorance. And the spirit said, if you do not take care of these twins, they will come after you. And if they come after you that will be much worse than if you go to them.

I mean, I was a little girl, and that never left my mind.

GORDON: They tell you you can learn a lesson anywhere, and there is a profound lesson learned from Mr. Magoo, to Sheryl Lee...

Ms. RALPH: Mr. Magoo!

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Sheryl Lee Ralph, as always, good to talk to you. And thank you so much.

Ms. RALPH: Thank you.

GORDON: Here's Sheryl performing the last act of her one-woman show, Sometimes I Cry.

Ms. RALPH: Speak up for me! Speak up for the struggles that I endure daily! Speak up for me, because you know just how hard it is to be. Speak up for me, being a pillar of strength I did not know I had. Speak up for me, because I choose to live and not die. Speak up for me! Speak up for your sister, your mother, your daughter, your grandmother, your auntie, your niece, your lover. Speak up for me! Speak up for them!

Respect me. Help me. Lift me up. Give me strength. Accept me. Receive me. Speak up for me. Because I am HIV positive, and sometimes I cry.

GORDON: You can catch Ralph's performance Sunday at New York City's Aaron Davis Hall or see a free show on Monday in Los Angeles at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, in support of National HIV Testing Week.

Sheryl also hopes to take the show on the road this fall to historically black colleges and universities across the country.

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