by William Gooch
published May 6, 2009
Interview with Sheryl Lee Ralph
who tours the country with her one-woman show Sometimes I
“One night only, one night only, that’s all I have to spare. One night only, let’s not pretend to care.” As Deena Jones, the
self-assured, pop glam diva in Dreamgirls, Sheryl Lee Ralph belted out lyrics that spoke of
a sexually liberated, pleasure-for-pleasure’s-sake type of intimacy. Little did Sheryl Lee Ralph know that two decades later she would
be recreating characters who have paid too heavy a price for loving indiscriminately.
Sometimes I Cry,
Ralph’s heart-wrenching, one-woman play about women who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, does what so many AIDS plays in the past
have not done: put the issues of African American women living with the AIDS pandemic front and center. Drawing from hundreds of
interviews, Ralph seamlessly morphs into these women, sharing their tragedies, as well as their triumphs. Ralph also poignantly details
that HIV/AIDS is ravaging the African American community and that something must be done, now!
On April 24, at Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church, Ralph conjured up three HIV-infected characters: Ms. Chanel, an
award-winning entrepreneur; a biracial IV drug user; and a retired church lady. Although all three characters have made bad choices,
Ralph sympathetically and brilliantly unfolds their stories without judgment, demonstrating that their story is everyone’s story. With
crisp, emotionally charged dialogue, Ralph cohesively connects the three, distinct tales, highlighting that the AIDS pandemic leaves no
stone unturned, and does not discriminate. Sometimes I Cry also inspires audiences to put
their misconceptions and prejudices aside, and realize that the highest form of grace is caring for the least among us.
After her performance, Ms. Ralph graciously took time out to talk with me about Dreamgirls, her motivation for this play, and her activism.
In your opening monologue
you state that so many people that you worked with in Dreamgirls have died from HIV/AIDS.
In fact, some died while you were performing in the original production. How did you handle
Sheryl Lee Ralph: I didn’t handle it well at all. At the
time, we all thought that it was happening to someone else, over there, when, in fact, it was happening all around us. Two-thirds of the
original company of Dreamgirls is dead from AIDS. At first it was just people you knew from the
theatre world in NYC, but soon after, it was people you knew in LA. It was a terrible time. You went to memorial after memorial, funeral
after funeral. Sometimes, it seemed like several memorials a week.
What moved you to create Sometimes I Cry?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: In 2002, Phil Wilson, who founded the
Black AIDS Institute, invited me on a few speaking engagements, mostly in the South. Even in 2002, a lot of black folks still were not
talking openly about HIV/AIDS. As I did these engagements, so many women starting sharing stories about how this pandemic had affected
their lives. I realized that the disease had evolved from being a disease closely identified with gay men and IV drug users to a disease
affecting a significant amount of African American and Latino women. Back in 1990, when I formed Diva Foundation, my mission statement was
to memorialize the many friends I had lost to the disease and my concern the disease posed to women and children. People asked me back
then why I included women and children in my mission statement. I included women and children in my mission statement because I thought
HIV/AIDS could easily spread to that population. Little did I know that my mission statement foretold our current crisis. So, Sometimes I Cry was created out of the experience of
talking to these women.
Where did you first
perform Sometimes I Cry?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: I first performed Sometimes I Cry as a series of monologues
at a coffee house called Lucy Florence. People kept asking me to perform what some folks then called ‘that women’s AIDS show.’ One thing
lead to another and my monologues evolved into Sometimes I Cry.
You perform this work in
churches, theatres, colleges, conventions, and lots of different venues. Do you alter Sometimes I
Cry based on the audience and venue?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: We do change the characters based on the
audience. For instance, if we are in a church, as we are now, I will conjure up one of the many church lady characters. The only one
constant character performed in every venue is Ms. Chanel. She is the first woman who told me her story and openly said that she was
infected with HIV.
Has the response in
churches to Sometimes I Cry evolved over time?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: I knew I had had a positive breakthrough
in churches when I performed this work at Bishop Eddie Long’s church and over 3,000 people showed up.
There is a wonderful
character in the play with a speech impediment. Could you talk about that character?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Of the women I interviewed, I chose to
use her story because she was such a sweet woman in spite of her many life challenges. This particular woman had suffered many bad side
effects due to HIV cocktails—her stutter was the result of the medications. But she kept going on, and I admired her fortitude. The only
time her stutter would subside is when she gave the names of all the ARVs (antiretrovirals) she was on.
Have you kept in contact with some of the women you interviewed to create this work?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Yes, I have. In fact, some of them
traveled with me to an AIDS conference in Africa last year.
Sometimes I Cry details the stories of women infected and affected by HIV. Would you ever include the
stories of men infected with HIV?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: People ask me that question all the time,
and the first time I was asked that question was when I performed Sometimes I Cry in Africa.
During the Q&A, this African man stood up and said, “You are such a powerful woman, you must do the man. You be the
man.” [Robust laughter as Sheryl Lee Ralph retells
this story in a thick West African accent.] I am considering it, but my thought
process right now is, “Should I tell men’s stories as a woman or should men tell their own stories?”
In which countries have
you performed Sometimes I Cry?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: I have performed the work in Nigeria,
Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, the Caribbean and all across the United States.
Have you been approached
to take Sometimes I Cry to Broadway or larger theatrical venues?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: The problem with taking this production
to Broadway is that the people who we want to touch, who really need to see Sometimes I Cry,
would not be able to afford the price of a Broadway ticket. See, we keep the production small and perform it for next to nothing, keeping
it affordable for audiences that need to see and hear this message. The time is just not right for that. Nothing before its time.
What do you hope audiences
get from Sometimes I Cry?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: I hope audiences find their voice and
break the silence.
With her husband, Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes, Ms. Ralph has created www.testtogether.org, a website that encourages and gives information about where couples can get HIV testing across the US.
For more information about Sometimes I Cry, visit www.sometimesicry.org.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com