“I was 100 percent emotionally exhausted from portraying that role, as much as I loved it,” says Gloria Reuben, who, starting in 1995, spent five seasons portraying Jeanie Boulet, the HIV-positive nurse on NBC’s mega-hit show E.R.
“I know the message carried a great deal of strength and hope to people around the world,” she says. But she had no intention of becoming an activist on the issue until years later, after learning that AIDS had become the leading cause of death among young black women in the U.S. This despite the great strides in both public awareness and medical advances allowing people with HIV “to literally get their lives back.”
“I felt I had to use the platform of what I had done,” she says. “I started going into communities and I started talking about protection, testing, awareness. Cultural issues that were really exacerbating the problem, the whole thing.” These days the Canadian-born U.S. citizen is still advocating on the issue — as well as pointing out “disturbing” realities, such as the fact that “to this day there hasn’t been another one on network television” — another character living with HIV, that is.
In between acting and activism, Reuben has a side career in music. For example, did you know she was Tina Turner’s backup singer and dancer on her 2000 tour?
“‘Please forgive me’,” Reuben recites what Turner said to her during a chance meeting after the VH1 Divas Live/99 concert, “‘but you’re so pretty. Can you sing and dance? … You should come on tour with me next year.’” Reuben, who studied music and ballet at the Canadian Royal Conservatory, thought that would be the end of it, until she got the call to audition in Turner’s hotel room. “I’ve had some nerve-wracking auditions,” she says.
Next week Reuben will perform at Blues Alley, offering two shows of “standards and songs that people are familiar with,” mostly jazz and cabaret tunes, with a special emphasis on the late, great D.C. native Shirley Horn. But no Tina Turner. “Why? When the first was so amazing, there’s no way you’re going to be able to do it better.” — Doug Rule
Gloria Reuben performs Tuesday, June 24, at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Tickets are $25, plus $10 minimum purchase. Call 202-337-4141 or visit bluesalley.com.