Jamaican On A Mission: Sheryl Lee Ralph
Call her the original diva, because that is who she is. The very accomplished and famous daughter of Ivy Ralph, OD and the late Professor Dr Stanley Ralph is one of the proudest 'Jamericans' I have ever met. An engaging and captivating storyteller, Sheryl Lee Ralph fondly recalls her experience back in 1962 singing Miss Lou's classic folk song, Long Time Gyal for the arrival of the Queen in Mandeville, Manchester. Her brother was also among a group of youngsters who rehearsed many days for this memorable performance. Ralph humorously recalls that the group of children, proudly decked out in their national bandana costumes, were perhaps but a glimpse to the Queen who waved from her seat in the train that passed by them. Despite that fact, the experience, she said, marked a historic time for Jamaica and one of Ralph's best memories of her early years with her mother in Manchester. She paid homage to her mentors at the time, Pauline Brahmmer and Ivy Whitaker, for the great job they did in preparing the children and organising the cultural activities for such a momentous occasion in celebration of Jamaica's first year of Independence.
As the youngest woman to have graduated from Rutgers University in 1972, the Tony-nominated actress and HIV advocate appeared in Glamour Magazine that same year as one of the Top Ten College Women in America. For Ralph, that was only the beginning of what would become a very successful and stellar film and Broadway career. With over 73 films and Broadway shows under her belt, this Jamerican never stops going and, to date, is still a sought-after stage and TV actress and now best-selling author of the book Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl. Her legions of loyal fans remember her best as Deena Jones in Dreamgirls on Broadway, (the original Dreamgirls), the sexy and feisty Ginger in It's a Living and as Moesha's stepmother in the TV comedy Moesha, which also starred R&B singer Brandy.
SO caught up with Ralph recently, while she was on her US book tour, and had a candid chat with the celebrated Jamerican super star. Check out our chat and learn more about her work with HIV activism and what she has been up to lately.
Heather Elliott: You are perhaps one of the most celebrated Jamaicans, or as you like to say, Jamerican, celebrities anywhere. How does it feel knowing that your fellow Jamaicans adore you and your work so much?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: It is the most amazing feeling that anywhere I go in the world from Africa to Korea to Japan across the United States, there is always someone to say... Sheryl Lee Ralph? Big up Jamaica! You make me so proud. I am so humbled by this. Now I meet children who tell me that I am their famous Jamaican essay for school. God is good and because of this pride, I will continue to walk good and do good.
HE: People are just learning that you were a part of the celebrations to welcome the Queen to Jamaica for her first visit to the island. As a young girl in Mandeville back in 1962, what was it like at that celebration? What do you remember most?
SLR: Many a day we didn't want to hold hands, but I will never forget the friend I made named Cherry, who thanks to Facebook, has reconnected with me after all those years. Besides the singing and the dancing, I remember learning the Jamaican National Anthem, which is one of the most beautiful anthems ever written for a country. I love to sing it. When you say the words it's like praying. It demands the respect of the nation. I will always remember it as one of the best days in my life. I sang and danced for the Queen that first Independence day. Yeah mon!
HE: Fast-forward 50 years and your life has changed from that little girl to a stellar actress and Broadway star. What has been your most memorable experience during your career, which has spanned over 30 years.
SLR: There are so many. Most actors never have their moment. I have produced the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the world, they say, with my DIVAS Simply Singing! Twenty-two years never missing one! I was nominated for the coveted Antoinette Perry - The Tony Award, for Best Actress, which has forever made me a Tony-nominated actress. People see me as one of the best. DreamGirls has earned its pages in theatre history and I helped write a few of those. I will always be somebody's DreamGirl. Moesha was an outstanding TV series that still moves people to this day in reruns on the Gospel Channel. I loved doing the show and the relationships I shared. I will always be Moesha's mama. Not Moesha's mother, Moesha's mama!
I will also never forget a game show I did in Jamaica called Take 20, where I won for four weeks straight with my dad as my partner and had to stop because I had to go back to college. That was such a great memory with my dad, who we just lost to prostate cancer. I will also never forget the week I hosted Smile Jamaica! Now that was big fun and I'd do it again.
HE: Your first film back in 1977 was a Sidney Poitier-starred and directed film with Bill Cosby and James Earl Jones called A Piece of the Action. These are three of the biggest names in Black film history. Walk me through your first day on the set.
SLR: For all the great details you'll have to read the book but imagine how I felt as a young island girl in the company of a leading man, film icon and island man himself, Mr Sidney Poitier?????? I was in heaven!
HE: You started the Jamerican Film Festival in Montego Bay some years ago. I was happy to see something like that debuted on our shores, but just when I started getting into the vibe of the festival, you stopped. What happened?
SLR: As founder and creator of the very successful Jamerican Film Festival, which produced five SHOWTIME Filmmaker Finalists in five years and was named one of the Top Ten Film Festivals in the world by E! TV, I am still so proud of what we achieved in such a short time. I look forward to bringing the event back with the proper support and sponsorship. People still want to "Sun, sand and cinema inna yard!"
HE: You will always be The Original Dreamgirl. There would be no Dreamgirls -The Movie, if you were not a part of that successful Broadway production for which you earned a Tony nomination in 1982 for your role as Deena Jones. The Dreamgirls movie featured Beyoncé, who played Deena Jones, and Jennifer Hudson, who received an Oscar for her performance in the film. How important was it to ensure that your character and the film overall depicted the musical appropriately?
SLR: Thank you for acknowledging my contribution to the creation of DreamGirls the musical. I had nothing to do with the movie. Maybe it could have been better, if only. But DreamGirls or not I love Beyoncé. We both played Deena Jones, we both have daughters named Ivy and we both have fabulous hair!
HE: You are known for your tireless work in HIV/AIDS causes. I imagine that your work in this area is as a direct result of people you have lost whom the disease affected. What is your biggest goal for the DIVA foundation you started in 1990 to raise awareness for the disease?
SLR: The foundation focuses on raising HIV/AIDS awareness, erasing stigma and discrimination, testing, lowering of the HIV infection rate, especially as it pertains to women, girls and young people. As an artist, I believe in the transformational power of the arts and work to develop new and effective programmes to combat the disease. The foundation disseminates information, and provides advocacy and mobilisation from a uniquely and unapologetically artistic feminine point of view.
Our goal at the DIVA Foundation is to break the silence and erase the stigma still connected to HIV/AIDS and encourage people to get tested in order to know their HIV status. We provide people with proper information in order to combat the spread of this disease using the transformational power of the arts.
HE: Your book Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl has been doing pretty well since its release. You have received some very favourable reviews. What was the motivation behind such a candid and inspiring memoir?
SLR: I was speaking at a university and a young woman said that I needed to write a book because young people needed to read it. I challenged her to get me a book deal and I would. The rest is 'herstory'! The book is doing very well, indeed! It's in its sixth printing. What a blessing. Most books don't get past the first, but something about it has hit a chord with so many people. We are 50 shades of grey for the DIVA in you.
HE: Niecy Nash of the new TV Land comedy series Soul Man is your best friend. How important is friendship within the industry to you?
SLR: Niecy and I are BFFs and have been for about 10 years now. Friendship is always important! If you can count your good friends, the kind who will laugh with you, cry with you, celebrate you and maybe give you a kidney, are few and far between.
HE: Your children are adults now so you have all the time in the world to travel and focus on your work with HIV and, of course, land some more plum roles in film or TV. What would you like to focus on next?
SLR: Just finished dong a new musical as part of The New York Music Festival, which is sort of like the Sundance of musicals. Shot a TV pilot with Terri J Vaughn which was a real joy working with her and Jo-Marie Payton (Family Matters) We play sisters, which is funny since everybody always confuses us for each other. I am also shooting a pilot for a new talk show.
HE: When you come to Jamaica, where do you like to stay?
SLR: I stay at home. Then go off to the country to visit friends and family.
HE: Where is your favorite part of the island?
Denzel and I shot The Mighty Quinn in Port Antonio and I have loved it since. But then again, Mandeville will always have a special place in my heart. I love Round Hill. It was one of the first places to host me after my DreamGirls Tony nomination. Golden Eye is a fab fave, too.