Sheryl Lee Ralph’s one-woman show is a combination of character performance and social advocacy, and although it may be uneven, it is undeniably heartfelt. “Sometimes I Cry’s” subject matter is a forthright reminder that HIV/AIDS is not yet cured, and that it now is affecting women and children in increasing numbers. The difference between now and the time of the beginning of the AIDS crisis, Ralph notes, is that then groups got together, if belatedly, to inform the public of the problem, whereas now the disease has largely slid off the public radar.
Ralph begins the show by saying that being in the original cast of “Dreamgirls” was the best and worst of times — best due to her success and burgeoning career, worst as she witnessed AIDS begin to ravage the Broadway community and the world beyond. She recalls it as an “ugly time,” when patients of the disease were attacked instead of helped, when a certain portion of the populace was content to sit back and let it happen. Not content to sit back and let this happen again, Ralph talked to many patients of HIV or AIDS in putting this show together, and she presents three of their stories.
Miss Chanel, a successful 45-year-old entrepreneur, has had some bitter experiences but is holding it together. Her husband left her when he realized she wasn’t going to die immediately: He didn’t want to spend too much time near someone with AIDS. Miss Chanel’s story of becoming helplessly sick in a fancy restaurant is affecting, the kind of humiliation no one would want.
The Foster Child relates a grim tale of sexual abuse, multiple home situations and subsequent abortions, demonstrating how the young and defenseless can be hurt even worse via HIV/AIDS.
The Grandmother is perhaps the most memorable character, a 68-year-old widow whose second sexual partner of her life gives her AIDS. A moral and religious woman, she struggles to understand what sort of message from God this is possibly supposed to represent to her.
Ralph conveys the many difficulties of Miss Chanel’s life, but also her good humor, with delicacy and grace. She is less effective as the damaged Foster Child, largely due to a choice to yell out the subconscious truths behind the young woman’s quiet mumblings, which doesn’t work as well as it might. Ralph is wonderful as the Grandmother, however, bringing the character to life, both in terms of performance and the writing. Ralph sings portions of songs between scenes, and it’s clear she is still in possession of a glorious voice.
A lot of the writing is done in a gospel preacher style, where phrases are repeated, and much of this is unnecessary — the show would benefit from some editing. Also, in a space as intimate as the Hayworth Theater, a microphone isn’t needed. Ralph has her heart in the right place, however, reminding us of the old ’80s phrase about HIV/AIDS: Silence=Death. Ralph is making some noise.