Sheryl Lee Ralph and her D.I.V.A. Foundation gather in thanksgiving, bearing witness to the many blessings emanating from 27 years of DIVAS Simply Singing and to redouble their efforts in the fight against AIDS having just lost their friend, South African Nurse, Noma Mtshali.
Text and Photos by Sean Black
t was a blustery night of pre-holiday bustle at The Grove, a popular shopping and celebrity hotspot in Los Angeles, especially this time of the year. Christmas trees were dusted in faux snow, lights twinkled and cookie characters waved atop trolley cars while children hollered “Hey Gingerbread Man! Hey Gingerbread Man!” The retail wonderland set the perfect stage for revving down a rollercoaster year. Coming together to celebrate their recent 27th Annual DIVAS Simply Singing success (see gallery), original Dreamgirl Sheryl Lee Ralph and her D.I.V.A. Foundation posse gathered at Maggiano’s Little Italy for a holiday fete. Nourishment, gratitude and warmth were all in abundance.
“We ask that you bless this food that we are about to eat and those who have helped prepare it,” prayed Sheryl Lee before we broke bread and dipped it into savory olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We sated our palates with yummy chopped salads, crispy calamari, succulent salmon, Chicken Marsala and Rigatoni Carbonara (prosciutto on the side) as we got to finisci di mangiare (eat up) and get to know more about each other. Most work fulltime jobs to secure their primary income and many work second jobs plus volunteer work they do for their communities as well as The D.I.V.A. Foundation. Standing for Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware, The Foundation is a national not-for-profit 501c(3) charitable organization founded by actress and honored AIDS activist, Sheryl Lee Ralph in 1990 as a memorial to her many friends lost to HIV/AIDS as an original company member of Dreamgirls on Broadway playing Deena Jones. The foundation originated from Sheryl Lee’s deep visionary concern over the lack of attention first given to AIDS in the early years.
Together this team of creative greatness, with whom I sat and was honored to join, uniquely uses the transformational power of the arts (same as A&U) as a vehicle to raise awareness and to erase the stigma still connected to HIV/AIDS. They also continue to educate people about STDs in addition to HIV including Syphilis, Hepatitis C, and other life threatening diseases. ‘We simply dare to care,’ is their motto.
Nikki to my left teaches at a high school in Compton, a hard-core, politically insular city well known for its gang-related violence and neighborhood struggles. Discussing welfare cuts of our current Administration, she sadly informed me that the ‘Second Lunch’ program for the children in most need of nourishment as well as the ones who will most likely go without food until the following day, had been cut and that Bert Champagne a veteran friend of Ralphs who works with APLA/MZA Events (seated on my right) had been gifting Nikki’s students granola and snack bars to fill the youngsters’ hungry void. Stephanie, seated to Bert’s right, is engaged to Hollywood heartthrob Cornelius Smith, Jr., (Scandal) who lent his signature good lucks and talent to the fundraising efforts earlier this month.
Gratitude and compassion for those less fortunate became the hearty main course before tiramisu and apple crisp ala mode. We reflected on this year’s DIVAS Simply Singing.
The event, held at the Taglyan Cultural Complex in Hollywood on December 5th honored Evelyn Braxton of the hit series Braxton Family Values, the drivers from Project Angel Food, who deliver nourishment and care to many in need, and Todrick Hall who had been unable to attend as he was opening a show on Broadway. Jenifer Lewis, the blackish star and Ralph’s go-to, fellow Dreamgirl’s castmember autographed her luscious new memoir, The Mother of Black Hollywood, while following it up with her signature raucous hilarity. Grammy Award winner Thelma Houston performed her anthem “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1978) to a standing ovation followed by Grammy Award winner Jennifer Holliday (1983) who brought down the house when she personally crooned “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” to the winning bidders of Ralph’s impromptu auction raising over $7,900 in just minutes. Winners included Wendell James of TVs Raising Whitley. The soulful voice of Kenny Lattimore with his smoldering appeal drew smitten fans from the audience bearing flowers, a center-piece, credit cards and even a candelabra (shout-out to Courtney Wilson). In the audience was R&B/Soul recording artist Freda Payne (Band of Gold), actress and scholar Victoria Rowell and Judge Mablean Ephriam along with many more amazing philanthropic talents.
Stemming from a particularly poignant moment amidst the electric evening, Ralph called a halt to the glitz and revelry once again recognizing the need for prayer and a moment of remembrance for a special friend recently lost to AIDS; Nomantshali ‘Noma’ Mtshali. Noma was a South African caregiver and Project Programs Coordinator at the Mpilonhle Santuary Organization (MSO), an organization with an orphanage for children whose parents had died of AIDS. Noma struggled to aid her community in Ladysmith, South Africa located in the uThukela District Municipality of the KwaZulu-Natal Province with mounting deaths due to HIV/AIDS among young adults, large numbers of orphans, and growing burdens affecting families and communities, in particular women. Bristol-Myers Squibb’s “Secure the Future” (STF) Program funded the site. Noma was a professional nurse with a BA in Home Economics, an MA in Social Work, and a diploma in HIV who was able to reunite with Ralph back in 2012 when Ralph brought her to Los Angeles to be a part of DIVAS Simply Singing.
Ralph best tells of how she and Noma first met back in a newsletter dated April 3, 2009:
The week here in South Africa has been overwhelming to say the least. When the DIVA team and I landed in Durban for the fourth bi annual Southern Africa AIDS Conference, I was on a mission to create new relationships and build bridges of understanding around HIV/AIDS. I wanted to see change in the way we see or don’t see HIV/AIDS… nothing touched [us] more than the visit to LadySmith…home to the Mpilonhle Project; a wonderful project that helps AIDS infected women support themselves and their families through beautiful beaded art work. I connected with the women of Mpilonhle when I attended the International AIDS Conference in Mexico (Mexico City, 2008) and made a promise to visit with them in South Africa. They were shocked and happy when Team DIVA arrived [the following year].
…We laughed and talked, then they asked us to visit the children’s site. We headed over to see fifty bright and beautiful children in different states of health doing what children do; laugh when all around them is so challenging, sing when no one will hear the song and dance their little dance like no one is watching. Some of them will never know a mother’s love or touch. All of them AIDS orphans. Nobody’s child.”
Ralph closed her letter back in 2009 ‘Home on Monday with much work to do! God bless the children, God bless us all.’
Much work has been done by Ralph and her team and I fastforward back to Maggiano’s. D.I.V.A. Program Manager Scott Hamilton, seated directly across from me and to the right of the DIVA herself. He contributes to the round-robin of heartfelt story telling in his remembrance of Noma. Scott is a gifted storyteller just like Sheryl Lee.
He recollects and begins connecting the dots with love and pride from nearly a decade ago providing clarity for the table as if Noma was recalling the story herself and was present at our table. She probably was. “When the DIVA Team returned to Durban to prepare for their daily workshops at the Southern African AIDS Conference (SAAC),” prefaces Scott. “Although immersed in the conference, the team COULD NOT get the experience of visiting the orphans off of our minds. So we got together and brainstormed on how we could best make some impact and provide support. We decided on food. Sheryl Lee placed a call to Noma and asked if they could get to Durban as the Team had gifts for them for their program and for them to come in a van. Team DIVA went to Durban’s version of Costco and stocked up on goods for the orphans; rice, evaporated milk, lotion and Chapstick, things that we take for granted daily. Noma and two staffers met the team outside of the store. We loaded their van with the goods we purchased and let them know that we would never forget them. As team DIVA returned to their van, which was across the parking lot, there was Noma, running to catch up to give Sheryl Lee a beaded bracelet.”
Much work is still desperately needed to be done, especially now. Despite the advances over the last eight or so years, all indicators point to irreparable backsliding at the hands of our current callous Administrative regime. Backed by her husband Senator Vincent Hughes (Pennsylvania) after a plea to the audience to call on friends in Alabama to vote in the special election which thankfully elected Doug Jones, Sheryl Lee resounded her point the evening of her gala after announcing our tragic loss of life in Noma.
“As long as people are dying from AIDS there will still be a need for us to continue to raise awareness, one song at a time. We at the D.I.V.A. Foundation are Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware and we simply dare to care. We’ve been doing it for 27 years.”
Much gratitude to Sheryl Lee Ralph for including me, her team for always making me feel so welcomed and special. A special shout-out too, to Scott Hamilton, Program Manager for the D.I.V.A. Foundation for his friendship and help with this story.
For more information logon and subscribe to the D.I.V.A. Foundation Newsletter at http://divatickets.com or follow and like them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/DivasSimplySinging/. Find them on Twitter at @DivasSimplySing
Sean Black is Senior Editor of A&U.