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'Dreamgirls' led to AIDS activism for Sheryl Lee Ralph

Julie Hinds

DETROIT — Where does wife, mother, activist and actress Sheryl Lee Ralph get her energy?

"I think it comes from the generations of women that came before me, that let me know you're not just put here for nothing. You're put here to do something," she says emphatically by phone from Los Angeles, where she's working on a new movie, "The Cost of Heaven."

The busy star of stage, screen and television is coming to Detroit on Saturday to be the featured speaker at the 97th annual celebration to commemorate the founding of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Ralph, who was in Detroit last week wrapping up work on a gospel drama, shared thoughts on everything from her famous Broadway role in "Dreamgirls" to the current state of television.

Q: You originated the role of Deena Jones in "Dreamgirls." How many "Dreamgirls" fans do you run into on an average week?

A: So many, it's like every day. Now that I'm doing a film, there's always somebody that has their own personal "Dreamgirls" story.

Q: You're a longtime HIV/AIDS activist.

A: Absolutely. It all started for me because of "Dreamgirls," being so young and impressionable and seeing the devastation of this mysterious disease. And how it literally just changed people's lives overnight, how it affected the art for generations, the number of talented people we lost.

Q: What's the most important focus now in the fight for awareness?

A: I think for a lot of people it would be testing. Too many people have gotten the idea of testing twisted. People say, "Well, if I'm positive, then I don't want to know." And I say it's not just about if you're positive. It's about, what if you're negative? If you're negative, we want to make sure that you do all things possible to make sure you stay that way. But if you're positive, we want to make sure that you have the direction to get the kind of help and treatment and medication and support that you're going to need to fight this disease.

Q: You're married to a Pennsylvania state senator. What's the secret to a successful political marriage?

A: Diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy!

Q: You've appeared on TV shows like "Barbershop" and "Hannah Montana," to name a couple. As an expert on TV, what shows are you watching now?

A: I'm really in a quandary when it comes to TV, because I love TV so much, but TV, believe it or not, is turning into a veritable cesspool on many levels. The reality is so ugly that it's driving me a little bit crazy. I dislike the idea that we could look at ourselves and see such an unattractive picture, day in, day out, night after night, and think it's OK. ... Some of the TV is so unsuitable, what do you think your children are going to grow up and do? I'm a bit bothered by it. But to that end, I did turn on "Big Love" on Sunday. I cannot believe that I'm so into these Mormons. That Bill is just rocking my world (laughs).

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