When Sheryl Lee Ralph makes her entrance in her one-woman show about women infected and affected by AIDS (or "the AIDS," as it's frequently put forth in this production), her mouth is taped shut and her eyes glare balefully over the house, and I think we're sunk. We are nothing of the sort. As soon as the tape comes off, that voice -- that glorious voice -- is released. Okay, it's released in an overmiked version that seems wildly out of proportion to the midsized venue, but let us leave that aside. She then goes on to embody the roles of three women -- one a middle-aged entrepreneur, one hardly more than a child, and one a grandmother -- who have been afflicted with what many still think of as a "gay disease." There's a sermonlike structure to the piece -- lots of rhetorical question and repeated phrases with the occasional shouted subtext -- but Ralph is so winning that the audience never feels it's being clubbed into submission. It's a powerful performance. She's notably warm and accessible and, truly, you just want to take her home and discuss this over coffee.
Now, here's the sticky part. As a gay white male of a certain (ahem) age, I'm watching this, thinking, "Gee, isn't this ground that was covered decades ago?" And while the answer is yes, the reality is, as Ralph elucidates, that the atmosphere of complacency has spread and a disturbingly large part of the population remains shockingly uninformed. But that is not made clear until after the show; this may be the first production I've seen where the postshow Q&A is integral. It's clear the issue is vitally important to her. And this is where you lose your heart. There's no diva-tude about it. Ralph adroitly sets aside any sort of performer's ego in the service of a larger issue. If you've stopped paying attention, pay attention. If you've never paid attention, pay attention. And speak out -- although it's hard to believe anybody could do a better job of speaking out than Sheryl Lee Ralph. The only thing this show needs is a larger audience.
Presented by and at the Hayworth Theatre,
2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
Sun. 3 p.m. Jul. 8 and Aug. 12-26. (800) 838-3006.