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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dj Buddy Beaverhausen's Book Nook: "Redefining Diva" by Sheryl Lee Ralph

The purported purpose of Sheryl Lee Ralph's prose in her recently published book (Simon & Schuster trade paperback), "Redefining Diva," is exactly as the title propounds. "I am the Ultimate Diva," Ms Ralph writes, spending a great deal of time, early on, to elucidate that statement and illuminate the very nature of divadom to anyone who reads her tome.

Ms Ralph clarifies that she is not a "diva" in the sense of that term being used synonymously with "bitch." Off the record, I've heard otherwise, but I digress. "A Diva is an acronym: Divinely Inspired Victoriously Anointed," our Dreamgirl insists. Well, Babycakes, I'm sure Joan Crawford felt the same way.

Sheryl Lee Ralph, star of stage, screen, television and music, has even been a disco diva, beautifully belting out the dance classic, "In the Evening"-- which, she briefly points out, was a top ten hit --  as well as the equally discolicious "You're So Romantic" and, notably, a hi-NRG cover of The Eurythmics' "Here Comes the Rain Again." Ms Ralph rose to fame when she took Broadway by storm as one of the original Dreamgirls in the 1981 musical. (She had the Deena Jones role, played by Beyonce in the motion picture.)

The ulterior purpose of this memoir, it turns out (and not entirely a shocker), is to settle scores, put Ms Ralph's spin on past events and spread a little gossip. Ok, so here we have the juicy stuff! The reason I buy books of this sort. Regretfully, I must tell you, Her Nibs does this sheepishly. You just know she has so much more mud to fling, and so much dirty laundry she could generously air without things becoming libelous but, rather, Ms Ralph skims over events, skimps on details, deflects animosities towards her arch-nemeses onto others and always puts a happy face on things, as if all conflicts in her life have found closure and she, as a diva, has found inner peace. Yeah, right, Ralph!

There's a sense of disingenuousness to the writing. This isn't a tell-all; it's a tell-some! Just a few teaser bits, some inferences and a gloss of being above it all. Very passive-aggressive if you ask me, not only to her enemies or frienemies, but to her readers. That's not divaesque; that's just being a bitch!

Cast in the notorious Broadway flop, Reggae, 10 days before opening night, Sheryl allows, "...they needed a star leading lady now, as the beauty queen playing Faith had been fired. The word around the show was she'd been hired for her looks and not her acting abilities.... It was obvious she couldn't act to save her life." Well, that's catty! But you see the problem? Name please! The "beauty queen" (pageant queen or model?) isn't mentioned by name and, since she was dismissed during previews, I have no idea who this unnamed individual is. (Yes, I Googled it, but no luck.) So, snarling about one's "acting abilities" is, consequently, a pretty toothless snarl under the circumstances.

Ms Ralph scores brownie points when talking about Nell Carter, to whom she does not give a break. The late Ms Carter was cast in the Effie role (famously portrayed, in the original cast, by Jennifer Holliday, and on-screen by Jennifer Hudson) during the show's previews. Carter's erratic behavior during rehearsals is detailed; for example, when she left the room in the middle of singing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," ironically.  (Irony that was lost on the author.) Where did she go without telling anybody? Ralph found Nell in the ladies' room, red-eyed and covered in vomit.

"At times a prickly personality, Nell had demons she was fighting," the author would only write. In fact, it's already documented outside this book that Nell had a cocaine habit and an alcohol-abuse problem for many, many years.

Ralph discusses, to some extent, her feuds with Broadway co-star Holliday, "Dreamgirls" director Michael Bennett, Diana Ross and Moesha co-star, Brandy. With that many heads to butt, it's hard to imagine that she's not... oh, shall we just say "a wee bit difficult to get along with."

Although she is especially harsh on Bennett, there are flashes in the book that she pulled the diva act with him, Divinely Inspired Victoriously Anointed as she hoped to be.  She attributes the bad blood between JHol and herself as being stirred up by their director, although she takes a few well-timed digs at Holliday throughout: "As I got smaller, Jennifer seemed to get larger. She'd always struggled with her weight, and she coped with the stress by eating." The Scribe explains how, years after her experiences on Broadway, she met Ms Holliday and they got over themselves and became sisterly. However, might I add, things may not stay so chummy should Holliday read the above quote.

The Moesha situation also points to difficulties, if not deeper issues, with our wordsmith. She clearly was out-diva'd on that series' set by Brandy who is described as being "surrounded by 'yes' men." Undeniably, Ms Ralph was envious, even though she realizes, "...the show was called Moesha, not Moesha's Mom."

Unselfconscious or oblivious that she was having a breakdown at the time (obvious to this reader), Ralph substitutes the words "young cast members" when she clearly is writing specifically about Brandy, whose "enjoying herself behind closed door" caused our self-described diva to act out and storm off the set. (Hubby and kids needed to be fed, rationalized Ralph. I assume she didn't have hired help at the time.)

In an age-inappropriate diva debacle reminiscent of Joan Crawford taking over Christina's role on "Secret Storm,"  Ralph explains how she returned for the second season of Moesha wearing Brandy's trademark braids. Wait! Huh? Ralph doesn't see any problem with this and continues along as if she's grounded.

Brandy "wasn't at all happy with my wearing braids," the author writes, as if stunned. "According to her, the braids were her style. Her thing." Talk about cluelessness!

Asked by the director to remove the braids or put on a wig, Ralph quit the show. I'm glad the diva knows how to choose her battles wisely. Braids are worthy of all-out warfare, I have often been known to say.

"I don't have time for petty drama," the diva then adds with no hint of sarcasm.

Now, Diana Ross is a horse of a different color. She felt ripped off by Dreamgirls, felt it was a theatrical roman a clef about The Supremes (Sheryl denies, but of course it was; didn't make Miss Ross entitled to anything) and resented the fact that Sheryl Lee Ralph, as Deena Jones, was parodying her.

Well, wouldn't you know, Diva Ralph had either the lack of judgment -- or the cajones -- to get up from her seat in the Russian Tea Room to greet/confront Miss Ross, who had made an entrance and was posing, finding her light and flashing her grin.


"I stood up and walked right over to her." Uh-oh! "'Miss Ross,' I said." Get ready! "She stopped and turned around dramatically with that gleaming smile of hers." Duck! "I had to speak to her...." No, stop in the name of love! "'I'm Sheryl Lee...."

"'Ralph,' she cut me off instantly. The smile disappeared from her face.... 'I. Know. Who. You. Are.' she hissed, glaring at me.... With that, she turned on her heels, flipped her huge mane of hair and walked away from me."

The happy faces? Many years later, at the urging of Diana's son, Sheryl spoke with Diana about their children. Even Michael Bennett made peace with Sheryl on his death bed, dying of AIDS.

"Forgiveness." So our diva intones. Sheryl Lee Ralph founded The Diva Foundation, now 21 years strong, raising awareness to AIDS/HIV.

"I think that inside every gay man  -- no matter his color -- is a black woman trying to get out," Sheryl Lee hypothesizes. Honey, I got in touch with my inner black diva and it's Moms Mabley. Bless you, Miss Diva!

  












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