Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl

By Lorrie Grant, Black Books and

Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl
By Sheryl Lee Ralph
Gallery Books/Karen Hunter Publishing, Paperback, 224 pp., $14.00

Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph beams from the cover of her new book resplendent in red, draped in pearls, and as if you couldn’t already figure out an apropos title, there it blings: “DIVA.”

Ralph tells you up front that the diva she’s speaking of is not the familiar trope assigned to the uber needy or those who otherwise think too highly of themselves.  Instead she redefines diva using acronyms:

Divinely Inspired Victoriously Anointed

Definitely Inspirational and Vivaciously Alive

Daringly Inquisitive and Valiantly Aware

She gives you a number of versions not because she wants you to pick, but because she wants you to create your own simply by embracing the diva that you already are.

Throughout the book she leaves diva lessons – “A diva always finds her joy,” “A diva doesn’t quit,” “Real divas have their highs and lows,” “A diva knows when to make an exit” – that saw her through a successful career in the movies, on TV and Broadway’s smash hit “Dreamgirls.”

Ralph knew early on that she was special. Academically gifted, her working-class family headed by her dad who was an educator boosted her self-esteem.  They saw her through youth beauty pageants that exposed her flair for the dramatic as well as her historic entry into Rutgers University – at 16, she was in the first class to accept women and was one of only two African-American women admitted.

She started out trying to become the doctor or lawyer her mother wanted. But something about a dead rabbit and scalpel put in front of young Sheryl made her bow out of her Organic Chemistry on the first day; and she couldn’t stomach Constitutional Law any better.  But while wandering

campus afterwards thinking about how she’d break the news to her mother she saw a sign on the front door of the theater calling for auditions.

“I dropped my bag of legal textbooks and was onstage so fast it made my own head spin,” she writes.  “But I found my home the moment I took my place center stage.”

There would be school musicals, regional competitions and theater festivals to help hone her craft and eventually land her first audition in Hollywood.  There, at 19, Sheryl Lee Ralph would audition for Sidney Poitier’s crime comedy “A Piece of the Action,” co-starring Bill Cosby.

Ralph pays tribute throughout the book to the African-American actors who mentored her early career and others, black or white, who helped her in Hollywood and on Broadway.  People like Tom Eyen, the producer who saw Ralph in the short-lived Broadway production “Reggae” and invited her to be a part of play he was producing known then as Project 9.  He sensed it would be a sensation with Ralph’s help.

He was right.  Project 9 became “Dreamgirls” and Ralph was at the table during the creative phase forming Deena Jones, the character she would play. Though a hit night after night with co-stars Jennifer Holliday and Loretta Devine, the show would teach the diva some of her hardest lessons, like the mistake she acknowledges making by signing away her rights to what she helped create:

“I, Sheryl Lee Ralph, sign away my contribution to the creation of Dreamgirls for one dollar,” she writes, noting how common that was for young artists at the time who badly wanted to be in a successful stage play.

And then there were lessons from the drama at the hands of the show’s lead producer Michael Bennett.  He would resort to “favoritism” and other “controlling antics” to create tension between Ralph and Holliday, believing it would make the show better.  What it really did was create enough stress to make Ralph stop eating.  The anorexia left her a skeletal size 2, unconscious and hospitalized.  She battled back and returned to “Dreamgirls” until one night during a performance of the signature song “One Night Only,” a song she had sang for more than year, she went blank.  That told her what she must do next.  The curtain came down at the end of the next week’s show and she said goodbye to her cast members and the role of a lifetime (and one that was recreated time and again for stage and screen.)

She hopped a flight to Hollywood the next day.  There would be more auditions and more parts to play opposite the likes of Denzel Washington and Danny Glover; and there was the TV series “Moesha.”  And like a true diva, Ralph said she knew to leave that show too after its young star, the singer-actor Brandy, and other young cast members became disrespectful and petty – down to asking Ralph to change her hairstyle from braids because Brandy deemed that her signature and wanted to be the only one on the set with braids.

While Ralph insists her best role yet is as mom to a blended family of four and wife to Pennsylvania Sen. Vincent Hughes, she does still perform.  As in all of her roles, the part, she says, must be positive so as not to embarrass her or her family.

About the Book Review Author

Lorrie Grant is a writer-editor based in the northern Virginia area. She has covered financial and general news extensively for premiere news agencies, including Reuters, USA Today, National Public Radio and Transport Topics. Her reading pleasures range from autobiographies to poetry to inspirational literature.

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