Book review: ‘Redefining Diva,’ by Sheryl Lee Ralph

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: May 27, 2012

Redefining Diva Life Lessons From the Original Dreamgirl By Sheryl Lee Ralph Gallery Books/Karen Hunter Publishing. 224 pp. $14

Many people who are asked to describe a diva would say that it’s a demanding and arrogant woman who believes she’s entitled to having all of her needs met, even at the expense of the inconvenience of others. In fact, diva is often considered synonymous with a less polite word starting with "b."

But in a new book, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph (best known for playing Deena in Dreamgirls, the role reprised by Beyoncé in the movie based on the huge Broadway hit, and stepmother to singer/actress Brandy in the hit television show Moesha) claims that a real diva "is a woman of strength, character, and beauty that radiates from within. She copies no one. She is her own woman."

And that description fits Ralph — who is married to Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent Hughes — to a T. Which is why she picked Redefining Diva: Life Lessons From the Original Dreamgirl as the title for her new memoir.

But here’s a warning. If you’re looking for a Hollywood/Broadway tell-all book filled with sex, scandal, and salacious details, you will be sorely disappointed. Ralph’s book is a refreshing look at a young woman — specifically an African American woman — trying to break into show business and still maintain a sense of dignity.

That’s not to say there isn’t any spicy and exciting information in the book about other celebrities. For instance, I didn’t know that Dreamgirls was originally conceptualized as a vehicle for Broadway and television star Nell Carter, or that Carter had a heroin addiction.

Nor did I realize that the reason Ralph left the very successful sitcom Moesha was that the set had deteriorated to what seemed like an all-out war between the teenage stars and the adult actors in the show.

And after hearing so many stories about Diana Ross’ detesting Dreamgirls because she thought the show was based on her experiences as lead singer of the Supremes, I have to admit I loved reading about the first face-to-face meeting between Ralph and Ross.

But by and large, Redefining Diva shows Ralph’s struggle to find meaningful roles in an industry that, at the time, seemed determined to keep African American actresses relegated to playing maids or drug-addicted prostitutes. Determined not to play any role that demeaned her race, Ralph often went for long periods without a paying job — which gave her the courage to personally challenge film producers when and where she ran into them.

When hosting a fund-raising event for Bill Clinton, she walked up to Harry Thomason, one of the producers of the hit show Designing Women, and said that a show set in Atlanta needed to have more black people and said she should be hired as the wife of the only black character in the cast. She joined the show the following season.

While Redefining Diva will not satisfy those who like to read about the seamier side of show business, I recommend it for those who want some straight-shooting advice on pursuing your dream no matter the odds.

Karen E. Quiñones Miller is the author of "Satin Doll" and the forthcoming novel "An Angry Ass Black Woman."

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