Episode 7 of the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra is twice as nice, with star of stage and screen, Sheryl Lee Ralph and longtime Pennsylvania Senator Vincent Hughes. Married for nearly 20 years, the power couple connected early through their shared commitment to championing positive change (especially in public health). They talk about their first date, what HIV and COVID have in common, how they feel about third party politics, and more.
Hosted by Tori Marchiony. Thanks to Consulting Producer, Sofiya Ballin and Audio Engineer, Teng Chen.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Hello! Happy April, and welcome to another episode of the HearTogether Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m Tori Marchiony, and this is a space to hear from the people working hard to make a better future- inside and outside the concert hall.
Today you’ll hear from both halves of a Pennsylvania Power couple… State Senator Vincent Hughes and Singer, Actress, Activist extraordinaire, Sheryl Lee Ralph.
You likely know Sheryl Lee from one of her iconic roles-
She was Etienne Toussaint-Bouvier on Designing Women....
Moesha’s mom, Dee Mitchell, on the UPN sitcom, Moesha…
And originated the lead role of Deena in the Broadway hit, Dream Girls.
MUSIC: “Dreams Girls” by original Broadway cast Dream Girls
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Throughout her career, Sheryl Lee Ralph has leveraged her position as a performer in the fight against HIV- a platform also held dear by her husband. Senator Hughes has been recognized locally and nationally for his work addressing HIV/AIDS, and mental health in the Black community. And since first taking office in 1987, Hughes has been a key progressive voice in the PA legislature for voting rights, wage equality, health care, criminal justice reform, education, housing, and more from the outside the politician and the diva may seem like an odd match, but their chemistry has been undeniable since their [00:02:00] very first blind date. I mean, meeting, more than 20 years.
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: I was told it was a meeting. Okay. Yeah. She was told that it was a date.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: No, I was not. It was a meeting. She said, you got to meet my friend. You have got to meet my friend. That was it.
TORI MARCHIONY: What Initially drew you to one another? because those sorts of setups can go so many different ways. So it was there one thing that jumped out?
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: Um, I think I'm on safe [00:02:30] ground here. We were smitten with one another at first glance.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: I would have to say that's true because I, I looked at him and first of all, I looked at him and he turned around and I said, who has a shawl collar pulled up? You don't pull up a shawl collar on a coat. And then he had on a Kangle and it was turned backwards. And I'm like, “what Senator where's that Kangle turned backwards?” And then he turned and he had [00:03:00] the greatest eyes and I was just like, “wow”. And he said, hello. And I mean, it was like a movie for me. And then he started talking and I was like, “ah, gee, nice guy”. And then we went, we got up, you know, to get the cab. And he immediately, you know, opened the door and I said, “wow, he's got manners. He's nice”. And then we'd got to the restaurant and, uh, we just started talking and it was great, [00:03:30] great conversation. He was fun to be around. And it was just, you know, easy. It was just easy.
And what I thought was so fascinating was that here was this politician who actually loved the place he came from, you know, for, for a lot of them, it's just a job. But for him, it was obvious that he loved Philadelphia, you know, that he was the original, “fresh prince” and, uh, we just laughed and talked and [00:04:00] it was a wonderful evening. You know, how you walk into the restaurant, then you're the last people to leave the restaurant and you don't even realize that you're the last people to leave the restaurant. So it was all of those things altogether.
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: We got there at eight, we closed it down at midnight.
TORI MARCHIONY: Wow. So what kept you guys there to chatting till midnight? Did you talk shop and policy and about the good of the world the whole time? Or was there a point that it, it became a date?
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: So it was, it was, it [00:04:30] was driven at, at again from my vantage point, uh, policy, what are what's, what's going on? What's what, what are you working on? How can I be helpful?
And then we, you know, started talking about interests, focus, you know, of course, um, Sheryl and I, uh, had both been involved in the HIV struggle in the early days. I think that immediately connected us, um, in a different level, in a different way, [00:05:00] because, um, it represented my view of, of her.
It was, here's a person not afraid to utilize her, her art as a force for good. Uh, and she's embraced that. And in fact, she's been a standard bearer for a lot of others, um, to do the same, you know, it's one of the things that connected us. It's one of the things that, that allowed us to sink, sink, sink together. Um, [00:05:30] and, and, and to co-exist, um, in our own spaces, um, doing our own things, but connect in the context of trying to make a difference, trying to make a change, trying to be a force for good.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: You know what, honey, that's so interesting. You just said that because, wow. Cause I'm hearing that now I'm thinking about this and I actually believe that what I, yeah, that's true. What I do is basically using [00:06:00] my platform, which is being a performer to do other things in life. Wow. I never really thought of it that way, but yeah, I think you're right.
TORI MARCHIONY: And I'm curious, since both of you have been so invested in HIV activism for so long, what was it like when you came into the fight and where is the fight now? And what's the new growing edge.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: It was horrible. People were horrible. They said horrible things. [00:06:30] They did horrible things. And they reacted in ways that were at times absolutely unhuman and unkind. I remember people asking me constantly, “why do you care? You're not a gay white man”.
And I always was confused about that because I always saw aids as a human issue. I never saw it as just a gay [00:07:00] white man's problem because I lost friends very early that were Black, that were female that were straight. And I was in my mind. It's how can you not see that they're dying as well? Children were being born sick. And I was like, how can you not see this?
And the hard part though, was being on Broadway in Dream Girls and [00:07:30] having your friends just drop one right after the other. I swear in so many ways, it's very much what I see happening now with Corona every day with Corona, somebody is dying of the disease and there are all kinds of people.
And just like we had condoms back then was a proven barrier against the progression of the virus. HIV, could [00:08:00] we get people to wear and use condoms? Oh, it was such a challenge.
Then, you know, it was about getting tested, knowing your status and Vincent and I created at that time, something called test together and the whole idea that you would be a heterosexual couple testing together. So people thought we were crazy. And I was like, “oh my God, how can you not see that this is necessary?” You know?
And then [00:08:30] for people to say things like, you know, “well, what's wrong with you al"l. And it's like, wow, we're just human beings. And this is something that affects human beings, gay, straight black, white, bisexual, transsexual. It did not matter because we knew that HIV, it, it did discriminate just like we're seeing now with Corona, Corona [00:09:00] doesn't care.
You know, if, if you've got certain pre predis predisposed, post predisposed, you know what exactly what I'm saying? I hate when I can't get the word out, honey, what's the word I'm trying to say?
SEN VINCENT HUGHES: If you are predisposed.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: Thank you, baby. That's exactly what I'm trying to say! If you are predisposed to certain diseases already, it's coming for you. And do people want to wear a mask? No. [00:09:30] Do people want to get vaccinated? Thank God. They're starting to get the idea. “Oh, maybe the vaccine won't kill you the way the virus will”. So there are so many similarities that I see and the fight to help other people fight for themselves. Remains a challenge.
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: I can't add anything more than that. Okay. Wear a mask. [00:10:00] get tests, get the vaccine. Stop the virus.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Philadelphia Orchestra had to postpone all in-person concerts, but they couldn't be kept from making music for long. Though they're yet to return to performances in front of live audiences, here’s an excerpt of Vivian Fung’s “Prayer” written about COVID and performed on The Digital Stage by The Philadelphia Orchestra in Fall 2020.
MUSIC FUNG, "Prayer," Philadelphia Orchestra- Upcoming Performance 5/15
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Together and individually, Senator Hughes and Sheryl Lee Ralph have been leaders throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Their voices cut through the den because they speak with firsthand experiences of things like medical racism, and therefore understand the very real fears that keep people, particularly Black folks from seeking care just a few years ago, Ralph’s son [00:13:00] Ettienne, was mugged and shot three times, then nearly lost his leg, when the hospital released him without proper treatment. Put another way, there's nothing abstract or academic about their activism.
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: We use the phrase, um, trusted messengers, providing trusted messages. Um, this issue of trusted messengers was made more necessary in the year of the pandemic. All right, because we were quite frankly, uh, [00:13:30] the, the messaging that was coming from the leadership of this country was very twisted, convoluted, oftentimes oftentimes incorrect and quite frankly, a lot of lies and, um, folks in the community were like, what's going on? What? Who's talking to me? Who can I turn to? Who can I talk to? So we brought trus- consistent, trusted [00:14:00] messengers. African-American physicians from Dr. Stanford to Dr. Butler, to Dr. Posse, a whole bunch of folks high-level professional African-American individuals who could talk and be seen and be heard. And so this issue of trusted messengers, providing trusted messages has been, has been a focus around COVID in our,
SHERYL LEE RALPH: And also, also like you said, it was through our experience. [00:14:30] You know, there are a lot of people out there leading the way and you know, you will hear people in the community say, you have no idea what I'm going through. When they look at Vincent and I, they know we know what you're going through because we've been through it at some level, at some point in our lives. Your son got shot. Our son got shot. You [00:15:00] didn't get the care that you deserved in the hospital. Our son did not get the care that he deserved in the hospital. We understand why you might not feel safe going into the hospital because just like you didn't get care, we didn't get care. And our son went in wearing a tuxedo with the Senate of Pennsylvania health card and still [00:15:30] they took no care of him in Philadelphia.
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: And I hate to say it, but it's, it is what it is. Um, he was seen as just another black man, young black man on a Friday night.
MUSIC: Jennifer Higdon Pale Yellow
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): That was an excerpt of Jennifer Higdon's pale yellow for piano trio performed by Barbara Lovato's [inaudible]. And Natalie's you, as part of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Our City, Your Orchestra free concert series.
TORI MARCHIONY: Sheryl Lee, I'm wondering, have you ever had to like tone it down, hold back, do to fit into the role of “senators wife”?
SHERYL LEE RALPH: It's always about cleavage, [00:18:00] you know, and in California, cleavage! In Pennsylvania, no cleavage, you know. So it it's how you present yourself, you know? And it's oh my gosh. Sometimes I, I feel like, “okay, tone it down, tone it down”. But then you, honestly, I can not tone it down. If I tone it down, then I'm not being myself. The only thing he is is the cleavage [00:18:30] police. Right? That’s about it. But other than that, I basically am my self. And if I tone it down, if he were to ask me to tone it down, something would be wrong. And we probably wouldn't still be together the way we are
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: The cleavage police. I had never heard of that. It's the truth.
TORI MARCHIONY: It sounds like a fun job.
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
TORI MARCHIONY: Sheryl Lee, [00:19:00] have you always had this self-assuredness? Cause I'm looking back at your, uh, resume… it, it reads like success after success, after success and that you were able to show up strong and bold and say, “here I am, a dark skinned Black woman, a role model”. Was there ever a time where you felt doubt or fear or small, or like you couldn't be your full self?
SHERYL LEE RALPH: [00:19:30] I was the funny looking girl. I wasn't, I wasn't cute. Um, I was basically what they would call a “butter face”, meaning great personality, but her face! You know, so it, I, they used to call me names when I was little, oh my God. Bullying was the order of the day. I was also the only Black child in my whole entire school, uh, in [00:20:00] my youth. And oh my God, that in itself was very painful at times.
And you know, I realized through my parents that you had to persevere, you had to move forward because change had to happen for sixties children, you know, Black sixties, children. We had to move forward being given the fact [00:20:30] that now they had fought and died for the right to vote. They fought and died to live in certain neighborhoods. They fought and died. So you could get the best education. They fought, they died, they struggled, they persevered. And now here you were at the dawning of a brand new day. It was your responsibility to do well because when you enter the room, the whole [00:21:00] race comes with you.
And I I'm an immigrant child, my mother, a Jamaican immigrant, my dad, a Black American. Uh, but I guess my dad would have been born a Negro, you know? And there, there were all different connotations with all of that, that here, this Black American was marrying this immigrant and, you know, coming from a different country, she doesn't carry certain stigmas [00:21:30] or shame with her. She believes she's just as good as anybody else. And you can't tell her, she can't go there because she's already been there and she's going to go there again. And you better come along with her. So, you know, my mother was always preparing me for the fight and my father, you know, well-educated and always going for more education, they were just loading you up that, you know what?
It doesn't matter if they call [00:22:00] you ugly. It doesn't matter if they call you the N word, it doesn't matter. You know, it doesn't matter if you're the only Black person in this highly integrated neighborhood of European immigrants, you're going to have to teach those kids not to use that word with you.
And for me, by the time I was 13 and in New York, I was ready for the battle. And I was up for the fight because you have called me everything. You have said everything ugly [00:22:30] about me, and now I'm starting to look good. So I already know the ugly side. What can you do to me? So I was ready for the fight of life. And I think that's why I was able to take on difficult situations, ugly situations, hard situations, because I'd been dancing with the devil since I was born. And that's that.
TORI MARCHIONY: [00:23:00] Wow. That it's shocking to me to think of you as someone who was called ugly or belittled as a child. That that is, that is shocking to me. And Senator you're nodding your head. Was there a similar preparation for the fight in, in your household?
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: Growing up, my parents were, were always involved but, from the standpoint of just being diligent about what it is that they did. All right. So I'll give you [00:23:30] an example. When my mother, my mother worked for the School District of Philadelphia, um, she had the most, any, any you ask any teacher or any principal right now, and they'll tell you what's and you ask them, “what's the most important job in the school?” and tell you the head secretary. All right. And that's what my mom was. She knew everything and everybody and every child and every parent that came into the schools that she worked in. And she basically worked in two schools.
Well, when she retired, I went with [00:24:00] her to the, um, her retirement meeting, where they talked about, you know, her benefits or retirement benefits and things like that. And they pulled up her records and they said, “wait a minute, Mrs. Hughes, you worked, um, for the school district for 33 years. And we look at your records and you have 320 unused sick days and 240 unused vacation days, which means [00:24:30] Mrs. Hughes, you never missed a day at work for the 33 years that you worked”. And she said, “oh, of course you, you have a job. You go to work”.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: And now that's what Vincent does, in all these years that we have been together. My husband works eight days a week and it is amazing to me that one human being can work the way he works. I say [00:25:00] to myself, “my God, when are you going to take a break?” Because I mean, we literally have to schedule things like phone calls. It's taken almost 20 years for me to say to him, to get him on schedule, to call me in the morning. Cause I know you're taking care of the business of Philadelphia. I know you're taking care of the business of Pennsylvania. You better call me and find out about the business of your wife. Oh yes. It takes time because he is working. [00:25:30] Huh?
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: And, and so there, my father was, was, um, worked in the, in the banking business. And for the last 25 years, he was kind of like the general manager of one of the oldest at that time. One of the oldest Black- owned savings and loans in the country, Berean and you know, through him reputation. When I first ran for office, when I first ran for office- “are you Jim Hughes' son?" [00:26:00] “Yes, sir.” “Don't worry you, I got you”. “Are you Jim Hughes’ son? Don't worry. I vote for you.” You, you w that Hughes work, working at the bank down the street? Yes, yes, yes. Ma'am. I got you. It says so much. Now I learned so much just from that. Do good, treat people, right. Don't fall back. Don't don't shy away from your commitment. Live a life filled with integrity and it's yours. So that's my, [00:26:30] that's my orientation. And then we both share in that, both children of the sixties. Okay. You know, raised in the sixties and the music and everything else in that time had tremendous influence over us, tremendous influence over us.
TORI MARCHIONY: But that's actually, because since I know you guys spent the most time together, consecutively that you spend your whole relationship during this lockdown. Was there any music that you could always agree on?
SHERYL LEE RALPH: I tell you, we do not agree upon music [00:27:00] at all. He loves one type of music and he is passionate about one type of music, and that is jazz. He loves jazz. That's his thing. He can tell you about jazz musicians. He can tell you about their lives. He can tell you about their wives and husbands me.
I love reggae. I love R [00:27:30] and B. I love disco. I love the classics. I love Broadway. I love a little bit of rap, even. I know when it comes to rap and it's crazy. I do love a bit of Kanye that early Kanye was some good stuff. Then that doggone butterfly album by, um, I can't remember his name, but “we gone be all right”. I love some of that stuff. You know, [00:28:00] I love it. You know? So I love more. I can't tell you about all of them. Like Vincent can tell you, but once again there, see that's the difference.
I paint with the broad strokes and he knows the details. So once again, that works for us, but there were some times when I had to say Vincent, if you don't turn down that music!
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: So let me add, let me add a little detail. Since I, I, I fill in the detail. She likes disco. I like [00:28:30] funk.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: I love funk. You know, George Clinton, come on, Ohio players, come on now, brass construction. Don't leave me out of that. Don't do that to me.
TORI MARCHIONY: Speaking of Kanye, uh, Sheryl Lee, you mentioned, I think to Wendy Williams, that Kanye’s run for president was really embarrassing, which I think we can all pretty much agree [00:29:00] on, but it was a horrible idea. And it was irresponsible. Um, was that a “Kanye going third party in this particular election” comment? Or does that, is that a belief that you take in general that third parties are irresponsible, that they, they rip votes, that we've got to kind of stick with our core Democrat, Republican, that that's where the power is.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: I think that, and this is just Sheryl. I think you have [00:29:30] to understand where you are at times that may be where we are right now in this time. That doesn't mean that 25 years from now, there might be a time when a different kind of change is absolutely needed. But right now I believe the third party does nothing but dilute the power. And I know people only like to hear about power possibly when it's a television show or when they [00:30:00] have the power, but there is nothing more important than the power of the people. And that is why there are people out there who spend a great deal of time, trying to make sure that the people do not know or understand the power that they have.
I mean, we're, we're seeing it happening right now in like, let's just say, Georgia, you know, what's happening. They're trying to keep the power away from the people. And I think, you know, being [00:30:30] a child of the sixties, we say “Power to the people”, power to the people really matters. And I I'm just open to change where we are right now. We don't need that third party, whether it begins with a Q or whether it begins with ecology and it's a green party, I think everybody has their voice. We, we need to hear all of the different people's voices, but we need to stick on a certain platform. But that's just me [00:31:00] for right now, who knows what the future will bring.
TORI MARCHIONY: I love that. That's a very measured answer.
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: That's a senatorial answer. You. Yeah. It's, it's, it's situational. It's situational. All right. You know, what, what, what, um, brother Kanye was doing was just way wrong, way wrong. Okay. This is not a game we're dealing with people's lives. You know, the mishandling of this pandemic has caused a half a million [00:31:30] people to lose their lives in a year, more than all the people who are American citizens, world war one, world war two, and the Vietnam war combined in a year. That's how devastating this pandemic has been. So, so, so this notion of “I'm gonna throw my hat into the ring just because it's a fun thing to do.” Hell no, you don't get that luxury. You don't, you don't, you don't, it's just serious [00:32:00] business making a break in people's lives, their personal livelihoods, their job, all right. Their future, the economy at children, our grandchildren. Nah, you don't get to, you don't get to play like that. All right. No. No.
TORI MARCHIONY: That is why we are so lucky to have a power couple like you on, on the front lines of good change. So I'm thank you guys so much for being here. And then speaking with me.
SEN. VINCENT HUGHES: The [00:32:30] real deal is she really does like Barry White. And I really do like George Clinton. That's the real deal. All right. That's your Coltrane, John Coltrane.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: I like Mozart and I like Nina Simone
TORI MARCHIONY: I’ll try to get as many of those into the soundtrack as I can for this.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: All right. Make sure you have a little Beethoven there, too.
TORI MARCHIONY: Whatever, whatever you say I will put in! [00:33:00]
SHERYL LEE RALPH: Thank you.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): We did it again! That concludes another episode of HearTOGETHER. If you liked what you heard, please remember to subscribe, rate, review, comment, share, and tune back in next month. In between uploads, you can hear more from Sheryl Lee Ralph when she lends her voice to help raise funds for the renovation and restoration of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s original home, The Academy of Music in a special event called Fanfare For The Future on May 13th. [00:33:30] Now per Ralph's request, to play us out, here’s a little excerpt of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, recorded as part of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 250th birthday celebration for the composer last year.
MUSIC: Beethoven, 5th Symphony