Dressed simply in an elegant black pantsuit, she used her eyes and face to convey a myriad of emotion. Even seated several feet away in the small theater, I could see it—the sadness, the pleading, the poignant look of someone who needed to be heard but could not speak--their voice snatched possibly by judgment, ridicule or shame. Then after several long moments of just looking into the faces of the captive audience, she ripped the cloth from her mouth and ruptured the pregnant silence with a yell. “I am an endangered species…an artist…and I know where my voice belongs!” With conviction she sang this mantra and the voice that was once silent now had power to touch souls.
Using simple staging and lighting techniques Sheryl Lee Ralph moved us through time and place. Along the way she introduced us to various women that had been infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. But these were not mere characters created by Ralph, but real women whose stories she had collected while traveling around the country talking about the disease. Each story thematically the same, but uniquely different in how the disease entered and affected these women’s lives. Without distraction of set and costume changes or ominous music, Ralph amazingly portrayed the subtleties of each woman. Great writing and story telling pulled the audience into the lives of women ranging in age and backgrounds. From an elitist businesswoman’s embarrassment to a widowed 68 year old’s sad love story, we got a glimpse into their lives as if it was a therapy session; each woman told her story, in her own voice, in her own way. However, one story had an unexpected twist that could only be described as simply “fabulous.”
Although Sheryl Lee Ralph is not infected with the disease, her life has definitely been affected by the epidemic. While she performed in the original Broadway play “Dreamgirls”, she witnessed many close friends die while America sat in judgment and did nothing. Then, AIDS had no scientific label or celebrity names attached. It was a merciless killer taking the lives of gay men all along Broadway and throughout the country. And now, over 20 years later, African-American women have replaced gay men in the statistics of HIV cases. HIV infection has become the leading cause of death amongst African-American women between ages 25-34 years of age and the 5th leading cause amongst women overall. The numbers are drastically growing and to empower women to do something that will save their lives or the lives of women they care about, Sheryl Lee Ralph created not just a play, but also a movement. What will we do?