Kid You Not
Actress Sharon Leal Tells A&U’s Dann Dulin Why She Takes a Proactive Stance in Educating & Bolstering Kids to Have a Deeper Sense of Self-Respect, Especially When It Comes to HIV Prevention, and Why She Helps to Empower Women Living with HIV/AIDS
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Annie Tritt
“Some kids are cursed with shitty teachers,” declares Sharon Leal very deliberately. Making a disappointing face, she reveals that one of her former classmates was pregnant at fourteen and another went to prison. If it wasn’t for Nancy Ingstrom, her sixth grade teacher, Sharon could have shared their fate and she would never have achieved success as an actress, singer, and songwriter.
“Sometimes all’s you need is just someone to care and tell you that you can do it.” Ms. Ingstrom encouraged Sharon to apply to the Roosevelt School of the Arts in Fresno, Sharon’s hometown. Once admitted, she was bused alongside mostly rich kids to the other side of town. (Audra McDonald attended the same high school.) “Ms. Ingstrom saw something in me,” she recounts. “I played the violin, she played the viola, and we used to play duets together. She was the first person who told me that I was special and that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I’m forever indebted to her.” Sharon stops abruptly. “She changed my life.”
Sharon portrayed English teacher Marilyn Sudor on TV’s Boston Public for four years (2000–2004). The no-nonsense character was compassionate and supportive of her students. Boston Public, Sharon’s first TV show, brought to light how underappreciated and underpaid teachers are. “It made teachers heroes,” contends Sharon. Sometimes Ms. Sudor sang for school assemblies and was a part of the musical numbers.
Music had always been a part of Sharon’s life, starting at age two when she picked up a microphone and began to vocalize. Her mother, Angelita, an immigrant from the Philippines, took note. Sharon’s father is African-American (her parents divorced when she was five0. Angelita remarried, this time to a Filipino, who was a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. Her stepfather adopted her and also gave Sharon a stepsister, Kristina.
“I have this image of my father as a GI in his uniform saying goodbye and going to Germany for two years and me not letting go of his leg,” she reflects wistfully, her serious cocoa-brown eyes damp. “That memory stays with me and I can usually access a lot of hurt just thinking about it. I was very close, and I’m still close, to my dad. I can even remember the smell of his pants….”
“My family is very blue collar,” the actress explains. “We didn’t have a lot of money or access to great education as a young kid. Had I not been exposed to music and art in school, I could have easily taken a different road. I was steered in the right direction through mentors who put me in programs. I really feel that arts in the schools saves a lot of kids.
“It’s important to have a choir and an orchestra. They inspire kids and keep them out of trouble. It can completely change the direction of lives. It’s a way for them to express themselves. That’s what it was for me.” She’s now involved with Save the Music, an organization committed to making music a core component of the educational system.
Soon after graduation, a decade before Boston Public, Sharon landed a role in Miss Saigon on Broadway, playing Gigi for two years. During the run, she was introduced to the sincere commitment of the Broadway community to combat AIDS. She and other cast members worked closely with Broadway Cares, participating in events and collecting donations for the organization. “At nineteen, being from Fresno, California, it was amazing to meet these talented dancers and singers. At one point, I was told that my dance partner was HIV-positive. I think Angels in America had just opened that year…,” she ponders thoughtfully, resting her index finger on her top full lip. “Being a part of Broadway Cares there was this sense of everybody rallying together and doing whatever they could to bring awareness to the disease. Everyone had this mission—it was a revolution—and I was in the thick of it.”
Sadly, several Miss Saigon cast members died from AIDS-related causes and over the years Sharon has lost many more. “I have friends who are still performing and living healthy lives, despite being HIV-positive,” she says. “It’s inspiring and speaks volumes about the headway they’ve made in terms of medicine and care.”
After Miss Saigon, Sharon returned to Broadway as Mimi in the AIDS-themed musical, Rent. She later performed in the San Francisco company, as well. Returning to New York, she landed a part in the iconic soap, Guiding Light, where she remained for three years. Other television credits include CSI: Miami, Suits, Grimm, Las Vegas, and Person of Interest. On the large screen, Sharon’s probably best known for playing Michelle Morris, Effie’s replacement in the film Dreamgirls, having been nominated for both a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture and an Asian Excellence Award for Outstanding Film Supporting Actress.
Ms. Leal also appeared in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, alongside Janet Jackson; This Christmas, with Idris Elba and Regina King [A&U, October 2010]; and 1982, co-starring Hill Harper [A&U, September 2013] and Wayne Brady. Next up, White Water, where she portrays the mother of a nine-year-old who in 1963 daringly drinks from the “white” fountain in segregated Alabama.
Sharon has recently undertaken some complex roles, portraying a drug addicted, sex-obsessed parent in the film Addicted. She also played a lesbian who becomes the victim of a hate crime in the Pasadena Playhouse production of Stop Kiss—once again playing a schoolteacher! “I’ve also released a new album,” reports Leal on this sunny wintry day from my Los Angeles apartment, having arrived precisely on time. Dressed down in tight black leather pants and a bulky peasant-looking black print shirt, makeup-less, and hair pulled back in a disheveled bun, Sharon looks like she just finished a Bob Fosse rehearsal. Her fine exotic beauty is apparent despite her non-gussied-up appearance, but she will soon be transformed into a cover girl for the photo shoot following our interview. Amidst the frenetic clamor of the photographer setting up equipment, the stylist pressing clothes, and the makeup artist laying out her tools, Sharon remains Buddha-like-calm and keenly focused.
[pull_quote_right]“She was the first icon I ever saw and I thought, ‘Oh my god, something’s familiar there,’”[/pull_quote_right]Her debut album, Leal, which can be found on iTunes and in stores, brings her back to her musical roots. While living in New York in the nineties, Sharon would appear around town at cabarets and she produced an original piece, Stormy Weather at the Manhattan Theatre Club, portraying Lena Horne. “She was the first icon I ever saw and I thought, ‘Oh my god, something’s familiar there,’” blurts Sharon, acknowledging their multicultural backgrounds. “I felt myself emulated through her images.” When Sharon was in Miss Saigon, a friend, who used to style Horne’s wigs, shocked her one night after the show and brought Lena Horne backstage. “I was in tears!”
Sharon wrote all songs on her album and one track, a song entitled, “Giant,” Sharon’s boyfriend of nearly six years, Canadian choreographer Paul Becker, directed her in an intoxicating music video, which exposes her sizzling body and her sultry pipes. The album has been in the works for a long time, as Beyoncé urged Sharon to record it while they were filming Dreamgirls.
One of Entertainment Weekly’s 2007 “Breakout Stars,” Sharon’s career provides her a platform to speak out about causes dear to her, such as Mercy Corps, which helps people survive global crisis at ground zero. She’s also active with SickKids, a foundation supporting the Canadian children’s hospital; and The Well Project, a cyber forum for HIV-positive women. Its blog is called “A Girl Like Me,” where women from all over the world share their stories, exchange medical information, and discuss eliminating the stigma of HIV. “It just gets women talking together, empowering them,” she boasts, her shoulders erect and head held high. “That’s one of the pluses of technology because it surpasses socio-economic background and reaches millions.”
“You must talk about HIV,” she presses emphatically with a news anchor’s precision. Sharon leans back into the living room chair, her iPhone balanced on her lap, hands folded. “It’s about having the dialogue—always. It’s all about informing people and ending the ignorance.” She pauses. “HIV-positive women must talk about it. If you’re not talking about it, you’ve almost given up and you’re probably not getting the proper care. The Well Project gives women the reason to hang in there, to fight, to inform themselves, and to get the proper care.” Glancing upward, composing her thoughts, she trumpets, “There’s all these misconceptions about the disease and it continues to elevate fear-based judgment. Get the facts!”
[pull_quote_right] “I remember being terrified, certain that I had it. Back then we had to wait a week to get the report!”[/pull_quote_right]Sharon’s advice comes from personal knowledge, born of life experience. She was first tested for HIV in 1994 when she and her girlfriends banded together for support and went as a group. This was the era when a diagnosis was very often a death sentence. “I remember being terrified, certain that I had it. Back then we had to wait a week to get the report!” she exclaims then takes a drink of water, ice cubes lightly clinking against the glass. How did she and her long-term partner, Paul, approach the tender subject of STDs? “We just had the conversation,” she states with a blank stare. “I remember sitting down with him, after we established that we were serious, and us just talking about it.” A drawn baffled look glazes across her oval face. “I think it’s interesting how that’s such an awkward conversation that so many people don’t have….”
Sharon also tackled another private hurdle when she and her thirteen-year-old son, Kai, had the sex talk. “Kids learn fast these days,” she scoffs with jolt impact and mock wonder. “Sometimes Kai says things to me and I’m like….I remember not having any conversations about sex with my parents. My son is an open book—which…is…just…fantastic. He talks about everything and asks about everything. I don’t know if that’s something that I’ve always encouraged him to do, to just know that he can tell me anything without any judgment? It really makes me feel rest-assured though.”
Sharon chuckles, gently recalling an earlier time. “I used to laugh, because I’m divorced [both parents share custody with Kai, who is close to his dad] and when we were going through the divorce, Kai and I would be at a restaurant and the waitress would come to the table. She’d say, ‘How you doin?’ and he’d answer, ‘Well, I’ve been better. My parents are getting a divorce.’ I told him, ‘Hey, it’s good that you’re comfortable talking, but let’s not talk about everything with everyone.’ But he’s just that way, you know. He was six at the time!”
Regarding the sex talk, Kai initiated it. “A lot of these conversations happen while I’m driving him to school, when I’m barely awake! He once asked me, ‘What are condoms?,’ ‘Do I need to use them?,’ and ‘Where do I get them?’” Sharon is honest with him and she’s proud that they can talk freely.
A year ago her son had a traumatic event when he was bullied. With her guidance, he learned the method of pushing out the negative that was directed toward him by other kids. I present the expression, “It’s none of my business what you think of me” and she nods in enthusiastic agreement. Sharon takes a slow breath and concludes, “It took about a year, but thank god, Kai figured it out.”
Going inward is a major component of Sharon’s spiritual life. She meditates “a little time in the morning and a little time in the evening,” takes yoga classes, and does retreats with her Fresno girlfriends from high school. “I think you really have to excavate and get rid of that negative stuff and clear all that out. If you don’t, you really can’t reach your ‘best self.’ We get very blocked with our thoughts.” Sharon has a framed sign in her home that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.” She snickers, “I really have to remind myself of this all the time. When I’m depressed, I just work out and sweat—endorphins are the best drug. It doesn’t completely fix it, but it definitely pushes me in the right direction.”
Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003], whom Sharon considers a champion in the pandemic, is one of her role models. When discussing the actress and humanitarian, I offer to introduce her to a friend of mine who works with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF). She makes me promise to keep my end of the bargain. (Since our meeting, Sharon has, indeed, connected with Joel Goldman, managing director of ETAF.) “I’m living my dream—as cliché as that sounds—but I’m doing what I love and I don’t take that for granted,” she expresses soulfully. “Anybody in this position knows without a shadow of a doubt that it’s your duty to give back. People who are very involved in the HIV/AIDS community surround me and I follow their lead. People like Hill Harper [A&U, September 2013]. Everywhere I turn, someone is in the trenches—and this is the least we can do because we have a platform.”
I pose a question: If you were a schoolteacher today how would you address the subject of HIV/AIDS with your students? “Kids don’t take the time to investigate or inform themselves so you have to show them. They are constantly on their phones or the Internet so I would pinpoint websites for them to access that would inform them about STDs and how to have safer sex,” she says. “I would mention organizations they could contact if they wanted further information. I would empower them and boost their self-esteem to live a life that honors themselves and their bodies.”
She repositions herself, curling one leg under the other, all the while toying with her cranberry-red beaded necklace. “Hearing other people’s stories and challenges can be inspiring. I would bring in an HIV-positive person who could share their experiences with my class and even someone who personally cared for someone or had endured the loss of a friend…or more.”
Once a Fresno arts student, Sharon has evolved into a committed teacher. What an accomplishment. Ms. Ingstrom would be proud.
For more information about Sharon Leal, visit: www.sharonlealmusic.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed Dick Donato for the December 2014 cover story.