When Sheryl Lee Ralph speaks up, people listen—whether it’s playing the carefree kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard on Abbott Elementary or singing her Emmy acceptance speech in September when she became only the second black woman to win the supporting comedy award. Actress. During her five decades in showbiz, Ralph has seemingly left her mark on everything from Broadway (with a Tony nomination for “Dreamgirls”) to film (“Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”) to television (“Moesha”) . And as The Envelope learned during a Zoom chat with Ralph (who’s in New York to co-produce “Ohio State Murders” on Broadway), it’s about time people started paying attention to her song.
After your Emmy win, you said you’d been preparing for it since you were 5 years old. How was reality compared to the dream?
Much better. much cuter It’s not like I’m going through my career like, “Oh, award, award, award.” You’re going through yours [career] I thought, “Let me be blessed with some of the best roles, the best characters, and the best opportunity to do my best as an artist.” And I certainly got that opportunity, and it was wonderful.
Have you always planned to sing when you win?
[Dianne Reeves’] “Endangered Species” is a song I’ve been singing for years. This song was really like a warrior’s cry to tell these women’s stories that I’m a woman, I’m an artist and I know where my voice belongs. It was this song that I started [my one-woman show “Sometimes I Cry”] With. I was grounded in this song.
Do you think you have a different perspective on getting your first Emmy in your 60s than you didn’t have decades ago?
Absolutely. I’m aware that I’ve put the work into it. I knew the assignment. I never had to stop believing. When Oprah took the stage and said, “That’s an award that’s only 1 in [300 million] Humans will ever have it, so most of you won’t understand” – to sit there and be there [300 million] …it is a sweet victory, and there is no sweeter revenge than success.
Do you feel like people have underestimated you all these years?
It’s one thing for you to think about [that]; it’s a whole different thing when people tell you. I really did what I love to do. I’ve expressed myself through my art over the years. I’ve always hand-picked the roles I chose to do what’s happening to me now, and young actors and actresses will look at me and say, ‘Thank you for what you did. They were what I needed to get ahead in this industry.” Everything I did was for them.
Did you have a teacher like Barbara Howard?
My aunt Carolyn [Preston] was a reluctant teacher turned headmistress who even let the Queen of England visit her school twice for daring to ask her to come to her school so her students could learn more. My father was a lifelong learner, lifelong educator. Before my mother died, she told me that she used to teach singing and piano, but never told me about it [before]! I have been surrounded by teachers all my life.
Barbara just feels so competent. Do people react to it about them?
People say all sorts of things. They say, “She’s the teacher I remember; she is the teacher who believed in me; She’s the teacher who helped me believe in myself.” I just ask myself, “Am I doing all this?” I would get scared at times. In my first film I played a juvenile delinquent – Barbara Hanley. And someone connected the dots for me and said, “The reason Barbara Howard is such a great teacher is because she was Barbara Hanley.” She knows the impact of a teacher who really, really cares.
What else do you want to do?
[I’m] Working on a children’s book. I want all children to be able to see each other at the tree of life. Trust me, I looked at Tinker Bell and you couldn’t tell me Tinker Bell wasn’t a chocolate girl. In my eyes I was Tinkerbell, spraying bling-bling everywhere. Now I produce stories about people who have been overlooked for no other reason than that alone. I want to tell these stories.
At the beginning of Abbott, Barbara makes a reference to Sidney Poitier. Is that a coincidence or a throwback to the fact that he directed your first film (“A Piece of the Action”)?
It’s always a review. Quinta [Brunson] and our writers’ rooms really pay attention. So we got this cold opening where I mix black actors with white actors and singers. I made that mistake one day and it became a big deal.
What white person had a name you thought must be black?
darren star I was shocked when I met him. I said, “You’re not black.” He looked at me like I was crazy. I was so proud of him with “Sex and the City” and how creative this young black boy is. No one could tell me Darren Star wasn’t black.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-11-22/sheryl-lee-ralph-is-all-about-the-next-generation Sheryl Lee Ralph is all about the next generation