Tony Award-nominated actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, who originated the role of Deena Jones in the popular Broadway musical “Dreamgirls,” has another passion she’s nurtured for nearly as long as her successful acting career.
Ralph, a longtime AIDS awareness activist, is in town for National HIV Testing Week. During an AID Atlanta prayer breakfast Friday, she encouraged faith leaders to put aside the stigmas and labels we sometimes attach to people with AIDS and show love, not hate.
“When I see all of you here this morning, I know I can keep hope alive because I am a woman of faith and you all are faith leaders,” she said to clergy gathered at Paschal’s restaurant in Atlanta.
Outside the breakfast, Ralph stood in front of a red, black and white quilt containing the pictures of friends she’s lost to AIDS over the years. People like Howard Rollins, an Academy Award-nominated actor who starred in movies such as “Ragtime” and in the popular TV show “In the Heat of the Night,” filmed in Georgia in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Rollins died from AIDS in 1996.
Her nonprofit, the DIVA Foundation, works to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.
New technology and advances in testing have made it easier than ever to get tested, said Debra Fraser-Howze, senior vice president of government and external affairs for OraSure Technologies Inc., which develops, manufactures and distributes oral collection and testing devices.
“Testing for HIV used to require going to a doctor or clinic, having blood drawn, and waiting days or weeks to get results,” she said via email.
In the late 1990s, OraSure launched the nation’s first FDA-approved oral fluid lab-based test. Samples were collected and sent to a lab and results were ready in 72 hours. But some people never returned for their results.
Now people can be tested and get their results within 20 minutes, she said. Rapid testing can be done with a finger stick or through the collection of oral fluid. The results are protected by state and federal privacy laws and can only be released with the patient’s permission.
HIV testing is a matter of life and death, and churches need to be in the forefront of these efforts, said Pastor Gerald Durley, retired pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta and longtime civil rights activist.
Ralph drove this point home by referring to Jesus’ remarks in the New Testament, which she referred to as the “red parts.”
“Nowhere in the red parts did Jesus ever say, ‘I hate those people. I don’t like those people or I think these people need to change their nasty ways.’ He had a whole lot of people in his tribes, his followers, who were some different kinds of people.”