Sheryl Lee Ralph received a special honor at Project Angel Food’s Angel Awards on Saturday night, where she was recognized for her longtime activism in the HIV/AIDS community.
While accepting the inaugural Sheryl Lee Ralph Legacy Award, the Abbott Elementary star admitted that she “never, ever dreamed that someone would be naming an award after me and then put the word ‘legacy’ behind it.” Ralph has been working with Project Angel Food — which was started during the AIDS crisis and now delivers more than one million medically tailored meals annually to individuals facing food, financial and health insecurities in L.A. County — for more than 30 years.
In her speech, Ralph looked back on her 1981 Broadway debut in Dreamgirls, noting, “Out of all the wonderful things we did with Dreamgirls, nobody ever mentions the fact that we lost one third of our original company to AIDS. They were good people, they were kind people, creative people. You would sing and dance with them one night, and they would be fighting for their life the next.”
“It was an ugly time in America when people took comfort in pointing at those who suffered and were dying and saying, ‘That’s what they get and that’s what they deserve,’” she continued. “Lovely celebrities and people that we liked and laughed with on TV came out and said the most hateful, vile things you could ever hear being said about another human being. And when they were about to pass on and die, and they would be in the hospital, there was no bed for them. There were doctors and nurses who refused to give care and some of them had signs on their bed that said ‘Do not touch.’”
Ralph said she doesn’t know what made her open her mouth, but she questioned why no one was doing anything to help those being affected by the disease. “And the way people told me to shut up. The way people told me, ‘You won’t have much of a career because nobody’s going to like you hanging with those people,’” she remembered. “They were wrong. I’ll never forget, a church took the time to write me a letter and tell me that God would find no favor in me because of talking about that AIDS thing. Horrible.”
She closed with thanking “all of my friends — for those who are not here, but for those who gave their life, and I’m sorry we don’t have a cure.”
Lily Tomlin presented Ralph with the honor, after joking that she had been there when the star first volunteered with Project Angel Food three decades ago, after walking into a church where the organization was serving meals. She also read a letter from Vice President Kamala Harris congratulating Ralph on the honor.
“I’ll never forget it, I heard her mumble something softly heartfelt under her breath. I heard her saying, ‘They’re going to name an award after me some day.’ And then she looked up at the person who was the head cook, and she said, ‘I’m just here to help,’” Tomlin teased. “Well, Sheryl Lee Ralph is a force of nature, and when she walks into the room she brings her own damn spotlight. And she has used that light to stand up for the HIV/AIDS community when few would, and she has used it to right social injustice, fight ignorance and advocate for change.”
The event, which was held at Project Angel Food’s headquarters in Los Angeles, also toasted AIDS activist, artist and author Mary Fisher, as was as featured a performance by Jewel and a dinner prepared by Angelini Osteria.