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“DIVA” Sheryl Lee Ralph Re-Opens the Ebell from Center Stage

Sheryl Lee Ralph premiered her new retrospective show “Journey to Center Stage” at the Ebell of Los Angeles’ Opening Day program on Saturday. (Photo by Aya Mac Photography)


Sheryl Lee Ralph made history Saturday when she opened the 2021-22 season of the Ebell of Los Angeles from center stage of the women’s club’s Wilshire Ebell Theatre. Ralph, an Ebell member, premiered a one-woman show, “Journey to Center Stage,” a retrospective of her incredible career encompassing Broadway, the movies, television and philanthropy.

It was the club’s first indoor, in-person event since March 2020 and was also streamed via Instagram and made available to members of the women’s club via Zoom.

(Photo by Aya Mac Photography)

The opening song set the tone, as Ralph sang, “I am an endangered species, but I sing no victim’s song. I am a woman, I am an artist and I know where my voice belongs.”

Her stories about Broadway success started with two fascinating flops before her breakthrough role as Deena Jones in Dreamgirls, for which she received a Tony nomination. She told insider stories about Dreamgirls and her other Broadway roles, Muzzy Van Hossmere in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Madame Morrible in Wicked, as well as one more that got away. She showed off her awesome and impeccable singing voice and even inserted an occasional video, including an early ‘80s commercial for Dreamgirls.

Ralph’s extensive career in TV and the movies also got some attention, but as she noted, the show was only an hour. She put the spotlight on the stage and on her work with the AIDS/HIV charity she founded in 1990, the DIVA Foundation (Divinely Inspired, Victoriously Aware). The Foundation, which has hosted three decades of fundraisers, was inspired by the loss of one-third of the company of Dreamgirls to AIDS, including director-choreographer Michael Bennett and co-choreographer Michael Peters.

During the Q&A after the standing ovation that ended her performance, Ralph revealed she had first been inside the Ebell when filming the movie Distinguished Gentleman in 1992. It made such an impression on her that for a number of years it became the home of DIVAs Simply Singing!, her foundation’s annual AIDS benefit. (Last year’s 30th anniversary show supported Project Angel Food and featured performances by Jenifer Lewis, Leslie Odom, Jr., Mj Rodriguez and Oleta Adams.)


Ebell Executive Director Stacy Brightman interviews Sheryl Lee Ralph on the stage of the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. (Photo by Laura Foti Cohen)


Ralph’s knowledge of Ebell history included the fact that the Wilshire Ebell Theatre was originally the meeting place for the women’s club. She was familiar with two ghosts who are said to haunt the place: Judy Garland, who was discovered as a child on its stage, and a lady with a hat.

Ralph challenged the Ebell to use its resources to support “young creatives all across this city. I’d like to see us create programs where we encourage writing, speaking, performing, anything to do with the lively arts. I’d like to see us use this campus and its many stages to encourage the arts in Los Angeles.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of “Journey to Center Stage” was that it was put together in six weeks. When Ralph was invited to bring the Ebell back on Opening Day 2021, it was as a speaker. As she has done so many times in her life, she chose to give it her all and take it to a higher level. Despite currently shooting a new ABC show, Abbott Elementary (premiering in December or January), she put together “Journey to Center Stage.” She wowed a socially distanced audience spread throughout the 1200-seat theater and many more watching on screens.


Ralph (center) with Ebell members, board members, and guests (L to R): June Bilgore, Stacy Brightman, Colette Amin, Jolin Crofts, Audrey Schmedes, Aretha Green, BettyAnn Petit, Patricia Lombard, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Madelyn Murray, Phyllis Hansen, Randi Jones, Laurie Schechter, and Krista Kolegraff. (Click to see larger image.) (Photo by Aya Mac Photography)


For those who didn’t make it to the show on Saturday, Ralph livestreamed it on her Instagram feed – @thesherylleeralph – where you can still watch it.


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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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