Stage and screen favorite Sheryl Lee Ralph welcomed a host of fellow divas (including a Jennifer and a Jenifer) and “honorary divas” (or, men) to Hollywood’s Taglyan Cultural Center December 9 for the 27th annual Divas Simply Singing concert. Proceeds from the gala performance went to Ralph’s D.I.V.A. (Divinely Inspired, Victoriously Aware) Foundation, which advocates for HIV/AIDS awareness and research for men, women, and children.
“Divas is my oldest child,” Ralph told the audience. “She has had her ups and downs. I’ve had quite a few conversations with her about how to behave, and when not to curse on stage. But still, there are those who come to the stage and they curse. But they curse so beautifully.”
The first to break the no-cursing role: Jenifer Lewis (and yes, she did so beautifully). The actor and singer, following a barrage of playful and four-letter-word-laden repartee between her and Ralph, discussed her newly released memoir The Mother of Black Hollywood, toning down her outspoken quips to speak directly to Ralph about the friends they’ve lost in the AIDS crisis: “We didn’t have time to mourn our friends when they dropped like flies in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Writing this book, I had to mourn them; I gave my heart and soul.”
Lewis then launched into a choral arrangement of her resistance anthem, “I Don’t Want Nobody Fucking With Me In These Streets,” made famous by a video featuring her, Brandy Norwood, and Roz Ryan. The all-too-brief rendition was followed by her rendition of “Without a Song,” as she paced through the entire ballroom.
Additional highlights of the evening included a performance of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” from America’s Got Talent finalist Johnny Manuel, Terisa Griffin continuing the Houston rep with “I Love the Lord” (including impromptu harmonies from Jenifer Lewis, and performances from a number of “honorary divas,” including crooner Kenny Lattimore, who sparked a bidding war as women rushed the stage with flowers, centerpieces, and even light fixtures during his set.
The last diva to take the stage was Dreamgirls Tony winner Jennifer Holliday, who thanked her former co-star for inviting her: “Sometimes, we don’t know when somebody needs a friend, and we don’t know how it’s going to go or how to help somebody. We’ve shared a lot of years together, but have not been close friends. But in our years here, we have grown to know each other, and really like each other, love each other, share, and be together.”
Ironically, but by no means to the dismay of the audience, this led to a two-person rendition of the ultimate sung fight, “It’s All Over.” The song leads into “And I Am Telling You,” but audiences had to wait a little while longer for that showstopper.
Holliday promised to sing her signature anthem, though not before auctioning herself off for the cause: “That’ll help the degree of how I sing the song.” Ralph took the stage to lead the auction, convincing audience members to pay to sit on stage as Holliday sang. Though she was reduced to giggles as Ralph took on the role of auctioneer, her juggernaut vocals were in full swing as she launched into “And I Am Telling You,” moving down her receiving line to greet each person on stage who donated—all while belting and riffing.
Ralph’s continued activism aims to help all those affected by HIV and AIDS. At the start of the evening, she told the audience, “30 or 35 years ago, people thought I was crazy. They thought it was just men. I said, ‘There is a natural connection between men and women. I may not be your love, but I am definitely your mother, your sister, you friend. And we are connected.’”
That connection was embraced throughout the entire intimate event—both on stage and off—from celebrating the Los Angeles-based charity Project Angel Food, Braxton family matriarch Evelyn Braxton, and Todrick Hall to Holliday and Ralph’s triumphant “Joy to the World,” closing the night side-by-side.