Sheryl Lee Ralph talks about her decades of work honoring AIDS victims through art
"I wanted to create something that could raise up their memory."
Sheryl Lee Ralph has recently gotten a boost from her role on the ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary," but for years the longtime stage and film actress has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community and people diagnosed with AIDS.
In the 1990s she founded the nonprofit DIVA Foundation, which aims to empower those groups through arts and honor the memory of those who died from the disease.
The Emmy Award-winning actress spoke with ABC News Live's Linsey Davis about the foundation's work in honor of World AIDS Day and her career.
ABC NEWS LIVE: Take us back [to] your Broadway debut, 1981, "Dreamgirls." What was happening all around you in the theater community at that time?
SHERYL LEE RALPH: So much was going on. First of all, our fame was rising fast. It was like a burning fire, and everybody wanted to come and see it in the best possible way.
I always tell people it was like the best and the worst time in my life, because here it is, our star is ascending and my friends literally, start dropping dead. I mean, I wrote it in a play that I had written: They were sick today and dead tomorrow.
Nobody wanted to talk about who they were, who they had been. It was as if, oh, they were just gone so -- shhh -- we don't talk about that. And it was just said with such… oh, my God, hate, such disdain, such disregard for humanity. And it was one of the best and absolute devastating times in my whole life. Part of it changed me forever.
I don't think I'll ever be the same after having seen all of that.
ABC NEWS LIVE: So you start speaking out on behalf of this community and get pushback.
RALPH: Oh, it was horrible. That was when I started really learning about the different levels of -isms in life.
I'm a child of the 60s, so I thought it was just racism. You know, I didn't know that it was sexism, sexual choice-ism. I didn't know there were all these other -isms on top of it.
And when people would look at me and tell me, "Why did you care? What's wrong with you? You must be one of those people." And I was just like, "What people? The people who care? The people who are part of our entertainment community, the talented people, the kind people, what people are you talking about?"
The people who said to me to my face, "Nobody's going to like you for caring about them." I could never wrap my brain around all these things that were being thrown at me.
ABC NEWS LIVE: So in 1990, you create the DIVA Foundation. What was the mission?
RALPH: Divinely Inspired, Victoriously, Aware, AIDS aware. At that time, you could swing a pocket book and knock a diva down. Everybody wanted to be a diva, but it was diva with bad attitude. My whole thing is, look, if your attitude is bigger than your hairstyle, I can't deal with this. No, it's just too much. And hence, you see me and my big hair. (laughs)
But I started this, and I called up all my friends, all the divas with the good sense that I knew. I said, "Divas, we need to come together and use our voices, one song at a time, to raise up the memory of our friends because they deserve to be remembered no matter what."
ABC NEWS LIVE: So [the] signature event was in 1991. And now, 33 years later, it's the "Divas Simply Singing." Tell us what it has evolved to become.
RALPH: When we first started, it was a living, breathing memorial to all the friends that I had lost to AIDS.
And I said, for all of those people who, when you went to the hospital, and there was no hospital bed for them and they were just out in the hallways. For those people, there was no burial for them because churches and hospitals didn't want to touch them. For those who could not get care because doctors and nurses didn't want to give them care. You had to see what this was like. You had to see what it was like when people could literally stand in judgment and say that's what they get. That's what those people deserve. So I wanted to create something that could raise up their memory.
They were somebody's son, somebody's daughter, somebody's lover. They were somebody to somebody. Besides anybody that could help you with your wig and your wardrobe problems, they need to be remembered, right? So I created Divas Simply Singing. The light, the mic and the diva with the sheer power of her voice and her presence. One song at a time to raise up their memory, and I would never have believed that we would be sitting here 33 years later.
And we're still doing this. I would have thought that there would have been a cure. I would have thought that at the very least, we would have a vaccine.
ABC NEWS LIVE: Many people know you, obviously, for your acting prowess, having a hit show. But you don't just act, you also produce and you direct. Tell us about your new documentary, "Unexpected."
RALPH: "Unexpected" for me is so unexpected.
Two young women get an unexpected diagnosis. They're HIV positive. Now, you would think for two vibrant young women that this would be a diagnosis that would kill their spirit. But they take it in and they figure out, each one of them: How can I use this for good? How can I use this to help others? And that is exactly what they do.
The kicker is one of those young women met me early on when I was doing my fight, and she was young. And she said, "Miss Ralph, one day I'm going to work with you." Who knew that she'd be working with me on this project? Oh, God. You know, you never know how God and goddess will arrange your steps in life.
ABC NEWS LIVE: Works in mysterious ways.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: Works in very mysterious ways.
These are stories that people need to hear because still the -isms keep stacking up. And for me, it was just figuring out what can I do? What can Sheryl Lee Ralph do?
ABC NEWS LIVE: What's next for you?
RALPH: More. More. You know there's a song. What is it? I want to grab that brass ring; I want when I go around this merry-go-round that when it comes to a standstill, I can say I did my best and I enjoyed it. And in my mind, I know they, they are going to be all these young people around me and they're going to say, "That's Sheryl Lee Ralph. That's auntie. That's Moesha's mama. That's Miss Howard. That's that lady."
And I know they're all going to look at me and they're going to say, thank you, lady. Thank you. And I'm going to say: I did it for you.
ABC News Live
24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events