Sheryl Lee Ralph still sings and gets standing ovations.
Fresh off her Emmy win on Monday night, the Abbott Elementary star came to the Elizabeth Taylor Ball to End AIDS in West Hollywood Park on Thursday night to receive her second trophy of the week. She came across three decades of activist work in the fight against the AIDS epidemic through her DIVA Foundation, which has the historic splendor of hosting the longest-running annual HIV/AIDS and health education concerts in the United States. Decked out in a red dress and supported by her two children and Abbott co-star Lisa Ann Walter, Ralph made his way to the stage to triumphant applause.
Taking her spot on the stage under the lights and in front of 300 guests, including honoree Colin Farrell (who described his powerful bond with Taylor) and guests Paris Jackson, Jennifer Tilly and Alexandra Shipp, Ralph broke into song by reappearing. singing from Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species,” which she sang at the Emmys, to viral results.
“On December 20, 1981, I made my Broadway debut. Actually, that’s a lie, but it sounds much better than talking about the flop I made my debut with,” Ralph joked at the beginning of her speech, recalling the origins of her foundation. “Dream women. That was the best and the worst time of my entire life. The best, of course, was to be the beauty of the prom on Broadway. The worst was when you saw your friends/cast members die of a mysterious illness. They got sick and died. They got sick. There was no dying process. They got sick and died. Some of them developed those strange purple spots on their bodies. They are deceased.”
So Ralph sprang into action, eventually launching the foundation in 1990 as a memorial to the many friends she lost as an original member of the Dream women form. Even though it was far from an easy time to be an activist, she said.
“It was an ugly time in America just 40 years ago. If you happen to be someone in the LGBTQIA and plus community, I want you to know that someone died today for your rights 40 years ago. For a trans person living in your truth, I want you to remember what it took to even be seen as a human being because you were locked out of the fight for making it less than worth just being who you are, Ralph explained. “The truths aren’t easy, and 40 years later people want to pretend it didn’t happen, but it did. It was horrible. It was ugly, and it was America. It spread to the rest of the world.”
She continued: “When you use your voice to speak, people wanted to tell you, ‘You have to shut up. Nobody wants to hear about that.’ Even those who were infected said to you, ‘This is not your fight. Stop. You’re making it worse for us.’ Because some people didn’t use their voice, didn’t speak, it became terrible for all of us and it still is. Because whatever you think, a woman in the south, in America, is fighting AIDS right now. A woman is currently living with HIV. As quiet as it has been kept, people are still dying of AIDS in America.”
And elsewhere. The evening’s other guest of honor, Charlize Theron, was unable to attend the filming of The Old Guard 2 in Rome. She sent a video of thanks and said her Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project is working with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation on a new initiative to support young women, girls, the LGBTQ+ community and other affected populations in South Africa.
“This pilot program supports work at the intersection of gender-based violence and HIV, driving essential resources to community organizations focused on responding to and preventing gender-based violence,” said the Oscar winner. “I only have four words for all of us: let’s get to work.”
Ralph leaned on a similar sentiment as she closed her speech. “AIDS in America is still there. Raise your voice. Do the work. Decriminalize it and open your heart and mind to people who are not like you,” she said. “It’s Sheryl Lee Ralph, President, CEO, Founder of the DIVA, Divinely Inspired Victoriously AIDS Aware Foundation. For thirty years we paved a way when there was no way for us. But we lit it. We use our voice because I’m an endangered species and I know where my voice belongs.”