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From 'Dreamgirls' to 'Abbott Elementary,' Sheryl Lee Ralph forged her own path

Sheryl Lee Ralph plays kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard on the ABC/Hulu comedy series <em>Abbott Elementary.</em>
Matt Sayles
Sheryl Lee Ralph plays kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard on the ABC/Hulu comedy series Abbott Elementary.

Editor's note: Hours after this interview was broadcast, Sheryl Lee Ralph won an Emmy Award for her performance in Abbott Elementary. You can watch her acceptance speech here.

Veteran actor Sheryl Lee Ralph has been nominated for an Emmy for her role as a tough but loving kindergarten teacher on the comedy series Abbott Elementary. With just a glance, Mrs. Howard can get an unruly class to quietly sit down or to line up single file — and Ralph is no slouch at classroom management either.

"It's about letting [kids] know that boundaries are there for a reason," Ralph says. "On set, everybody is always amazed at why the students in my 'class' are always the quietest, the best and the most engaged, and I just talk to them that way and we talk with each other and my set is always ready to go."

Ralph got her first big break in the 1977 Sidney Poitier film A Piece of the Action, and an even bigger break came in 1981 when she starred in the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls. After the success of Dreamgirls, Ralph moved to L.A. but found there were few roles available to Black actors.

She recalls one studio casting director telling her, "'Everybody knows you're a beautiful, talented Black girl, but what do I do with a beautiful, talented Black girl? Do I put you in a movie with Tom Cruise? Does he kiss you? Who goes to see that movie?'"

But Ralph kept pushing to find a place for herself in Hollywood. She won an Independent Spirit Award for her performance in the 1990 film To Sleep With Anger, and, from 1996 to 2001, played Brandy's stepmother on the popular sitcom Moesha. And then there's her current Emmy nomination for Abbott.

"Whether I get that trophy in my hand or not, I already feel like a winner," she says. "The love that has been shown to me, showered on me, the flowers that have been given to me, literally and figuratively. I feel like a winner. And forever after this, I will always be Tony-nominated, Emmy-nominated Sheryl Lee Ralph. Oh my God! I feel so good and so happy and so excited."

Interview highlights

On almost giving up acting

About 15 years ago, things weren't happening the way that I thought they might. ... And then I just happened to have a run-in with a casting director who was dropping her daughter off at the same school my daughter attended. And she said, "What are you doing?" And I said, "Well, actually, I'm not doing too much." And she basically stopped in her tracks and said, "That must be because you must not want to do too much or you've forgotten who you are." And I was like, "Wow. What a perfect moment." And it really took that moment to reexamine my career, reexamine who was representing me and get out there and get better representation, which I did with my current manager, Lisa Wright. And what she was able to do, with the trajectory that she was able to put me on, is exactly where I am, exactly where she told me I deserve to be.

On what she learned on the set of Sidney Poitier's 1977 film, A Piece of the Action, her first big break

I learned an awful lot. ... But as I left that set, he gave me this little makeup box that had everything in it for me to be able to continue to learn how to do my makeup and all the things that we might need as young actors of color. Because he said, "They're not prepared for you. They're not ready for you. So you're going to have to be ready yourself." Hence me always saying "I stay ready" – because he really, really taught me that I had to stay ready because they weren't going to do the job for me.

On her love of '60s Black girl groups

How could I not love a good girl group? And they just kept coming at me. I loved The Supremes. I loved The 5th Dimension. I loved The Three Degrees. Oh, my God! All different shades and beauties of Black women. Just singing and a voice that I could represent and acknowledge — and I loved it. I loved their clothes. I loved their hair. I loved everything about them!

On developing anorexia during the Dreamgirls Broadway run

Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine appeared in the Broadway production <em>Dreamgirls, </em>which debuted in 1981.
Martha Swope / The New York Public Library
The New York Public Library
Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine appeared in the Broadway production Dreamgirls, which debuted in 1981.

I think it was the fact that I started to feel like I was invisible. I started to feel like I was not really seen. As an actor, you create a full character. And then there are people who want to say, "Well, you can't sing." And it's like, it's not that I can't sing, it's that my character is not supposed to sing with the same sort of pain and feeling and power of Effie! ... I'm more pop. I'm more the cheerleader with the velvet hammer: "Let's look beautiful. Let's put on our gowns. Let's go out there and entertain the people. None of our pain needs to be shared with our audience. It's for us to just be fabulous and beautiful," which in some ways is Sheryl, too. My pain is not for the audience. My pain is for myself. And I think what happens when you develop things like anorexia, which we did not know anything about at that time, it's because you feel out of control. You feel you cannot control it and what's going on around you, but you can control yourself. And what I could control was my body and what I ate — and so I didn't eat.

On the impact of losing so many friends in the theater community to AIDS

It really was a shock to my humanity. It was a shock to the little church girl in me that people could be suffering, people could be dying, and human beings found it easy to not care, not love. You'd have families just dump their dying children off on church stair steps like they were bags of used clothing for a rummage sale — and it was OK. Great evangelists and Christians were OK with getting on TV and saying the most awful things about human beings ever just because. And to me, it was an assault to my humanity. And that's why I got involved in simply daring to care. And I was shocked that I was literally being challenged about caring for other human beings.

On her son surviving being shot in Philadelphia

My son graduated from Drexel and [went to] one of those parties before graduation, too much drinking, ended up in the wrong neighborhood. And somebody used him for target practice. Shot him three times. ... And one day I was talking with Trayvon Martin's mom and we were talking about gun violence. And she looked at me and she said, "I wish my son was still alive." And I was just so sad at that moment because you can't help but be scarred by these things. But I look at my son every day and I know what a miracle is because my son's alive. And by the grace of God, that bullet, he carries a scar on his forehead, but he still has his leg and he's alive.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Ciera Crawford adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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