A Diva Speaks for HIV's Silent Victims

Sheryl Lee Ralph's
Sheryl Lee Ralph's "Sometimes I Cry" is part memoir, part public harangue. (Courtesy Of Tom Estey)
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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 29, 2008

Soberly glamorous in a belted black pantsuit, diva Sheryl Lee Ralph glided onto a stage in Columbia Heights Saturday night with a thick strip of duct tape over her mouth. For a long unsettling moment she stood, gazing at the audience, before tearing the tape off with a grimace.

The sequence, which launches Ralph's one-woman show "Sometimes I Cry," is determinedly unsubtle: The "Dreamgirls" alum has no use for understatement in this theatrical rallying cry, which exhorts the public to acknowledge the problem of HIV/AIDS. The actress-turned-activist has toured the work nationally and internationally, and on Saturday she alighted for one forceful performance in a red-ribbon-bedecked auditorium at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus on 16th Street NW.

Subtitled "The Loves, Lives and Losses of Women Infected and Affected by HIV/AIDS," Ralph's solo turn is part memoir, part dramatized oral history, part civic and medical harangue, ringing with sermon-like cadences. Standing in front of a screen that relays photographic projections and terse epidemiological statistics, she delves into her subject by way of a bittersweet memory of the 1980s, when she created the role of Deena Jones in the Broadway staging of "Dreamgirls." While she was reveling in her fame, she recalls (an Ebony cover featuring the "Dreamgirls" stars splays across the screen behind her at this point), the AIDS outbreak was gathering force. "If one of us suffers, we all suffer," Ralph proclaims, pausing before repeating the phrase.

Ralph's awareness of HIV/AIDS eventually spurred her to gather personal stories from women swept up in the crisis. (The project represents just one aspect of a career that has encompassed much film and TV work, including a prominent role on the TV series "Moesha.") When performing "Sometimes I Cry," she selects from this material, airing the tales that are the best fit for the audience in front of her. On Saturday -- coping stoically with a microphone that faded in and out every few seconds -- she segued between matter-of-factness and anguish, portraying two characters: a 45-year-old entrepreneur who struggles to maintain her dignity as an AIDS-ravaged body fails her, and a 68-year-old grandmother who has trouble comprehending her HIV-positive diagnosis.

"I am a Sunday school teacher, God -- and I tithe!" the grandmother protests, in a speech with Job-like overtones.

Some of the evening's most touching moments cropped up in a Q&A after the show. Clutching the enormous bouquet of flowers she had been handed, Ralph gave sympathetic, supportive answers to audience questions, including a query from a young girl feeling pressured by peers to be sexually active. The title of "Sometimes I Cry" may refer to weeping, but the sentiment that lingers -- after the show and its informal postlude -- is a we're-all-in-this-together stoutheartedness.

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