If you ask Sheryl Lee Ralph about the educators who played a pivotal role in her life, she’ll begin listing them without hesitation: her dad, her mom, her auntie Carolyn and so on. Then she’ll get to her kindergarten teacher, Miss Spencer. Her eyes light up as she disappears into her memories of Driggs Elementary School and the pretty blond woman who made her feel seen in the civil rights era, when the struggle to desegregate schools across the country was underway. She remembers the smell of Miss Spencer’s perfume. The full skirt silhouette she favored. The feel of her hand.
“I remember looking at this woman, and even though she was white, thinking: I want to be that,” Ralph says. “The way she stood in front of the class and encouraged us to hold hands. To have a teacher in an integrated classroom, and even though it’s Connecticut, for her to be nice to you — because there are some teachers who weren’t necessarily nice. They didn’t like their job. They didn’t like children. But I remember Miss Spencer very clearly. She could possibly still be alive. She would be younger than my parents. She meant everything to me. She held my hand.”
Ralph’s familiarity with the significant, lifelong impact that teachers can have on their students has brought power and grace to her performance as Barbara Howard, a 30-year classroom veteran who teaches kindergarten, in ABC’s breakout sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” Created by Quinta Brunson, the mockumentary comedy follows a group of teachers trying to give their students the education they deserve at an underfunded primary school in West Philadelphia. Ralph’s Barbara is a poised woman of God who loves Philadelphia Action News’ now-retired anchor Jim Gardner, a fresh manicure and, most of all, running an orderly classroom; she’s been an educator long enough to know she’s better off focusing on teaching than wrangling with the school system’s ineffective bureaucracy.
But “Abbott Elementary” is a sitcom, and Ralph has suffused her moving depiction as a teacher’s teacher with scene-stealing moments of levity — like her guttural, hyper-fast delivery of the line, “Sweet baby Jesus and the grown one too,” which she improvised in the show’s 11th episode, “Desking,” and was a masterclass in creating an actual LOL moment.
Brunson, who modeled the character after her mother, says it’s easy to assume that she had Ralph in mind for the role all along because the actor embodies the essence of Barbara.
“Barbara plays a lot of different levels,” says Brunson, who also plays second-grade teacher Janine Teagues in the series. “Barbara can be insecure. But while being insecure, she’ll still be running the situation, still the wisest person in the room. … Sheryl is one of those people who, when you’re around her, you can’t help but straighten your back out a little bit and make sure you’re using the correct words, are addressing her and everyone around you correctly. She is kind of a person that silently demands better out of everyone around her. And she’s not trying. It’s just something that she pulls out of people. And that’s so Barbara.
“Sheryl, as an actor, knows that about Barbara and then plays all the levels without ever losing the center of respect. That was the most important thing: This character is always respected.”
It’s been a transformative role for Ralph — one she was initially reluctant to pursue because she thought the character might turn out to be a “page marker.” And for Ralph, who has quietly and steadily built a 45-year career in an industry not always welcoming of her skin tone, taking up space has deep personal resonance. She has appeared on Broadway, making her debut as glamorous lead singer Deena in the original production of “Dreamgirls,” and has had an active presence in film and television ever since. But until recently, it has come with little widespread acclaim.
As Barbara Howard, it turns out Ralph was perfectly cast: a woman who has put in the time and the work, and whose abilities command your attention. Ralph has made sure of it, snapping up her first ever Emmy nomination for supporting actress in a comedy. She was at her family’s home in Jamaica, where she’d been readying a bathroom renovation, when the news hit — a joyful moment forever immortalized on Instagram thanks to her proud son, Etienne Maurice.
“Listen, I wasn’t getting up early in the morning in hopes that they would be calling my name — that was not happening,” Ralph says. “I was trying to redesign the bathroom. That was my priority. Then everything changed.” (Understandably, the renovation has not been completed.)
The recognition is something Ralph has been thinking about a lot lately. It initiated a flurry of phone calls, messages and media requests. She likens it all to rolling down a long hill: “Once you’re off, the rolling just gets faster and faster and faster. And this is a very high mountain. Thank God it’s smooth because it was rough going up the mountain.”
There was the time Ralph says she naively signed a contract selling for $1 her rights to “Dreamgirls,” a dizzying success that earned 13 Tony nominations in 1982 (including a lead actress nod for Ralph).
There was the time early in her career when a casting agent told her that audiences wouldn’t want to see her kiss Tom Cruise onscreen because of her race.
There was the time she decided to leave the TV sitcom “Moesha,” where she played the title character’s stern but charming stepmom,
Dee, because she was unhappy with a storyline that involved her onscreen husband, Frank (William Allen Young), revealing that he secretly had a son with another woman.
“I put in the time, I did the work,” she says, “and I didn’t just do the work for myself, I did the work for others. There’s so many young artists that sent me flowers, that sent me messages saying, ‘Miss Ralph, you did it so we can do it.’ Lena Waithe, Cynthia Erivo, Natasha Rothwell. It means everything.”
Because for so long, on some level, she questioned what it meant that she hadn’t been welcomed before.
“I thought about things like this: ‘How can I be in this industry so long and I never get an invitation to the Emmys? Why don’t they invite me? Why can’t I present something?’” she recalls. “I wasn’t thinking: ‘How come I haven’t been nominated?’ It’s more like, ‘Can you invite me to the party?’”
A few weeks removed from that July day, Ralph’s glow hasn’t worn off. It’s a balmy summer morning free from production on “Abbott’s” second season, which will return Sept. 21, and the 65-year-old actress is sitting inside a dim, air-conditioned nook at Hotel Figueroa in downtown L.A. She’s miles away from her fictional alter ego in appearance too. She’s dressed in a body-hugging fire engine-red dress — the kind that would provoke a side eye of both judgment and reluctant approval from Barbara Howard, an enthusiast of cardigans and sensible shoes — for a subsequent photo shoot.
It’s impossible not to question your own skin-care routine in her presence or to avoid feeling enveloped by her voice — it’s as regal as you’ve heard onscreen, full of resonance and elegance — as she shares the affirmations from her parents that this career moment calls up.
“You know, my mother and father used to promise me things,” Ralph says. “When I went through my divorce, and I was so sad, my mother said: ‘You will smile again.’ When I would see things happening for other people, my mother would say: ‘That’s none of your business. Do not compare, do not compete, because there’s only one loser when you do, and it’s always you.’ So I know my mother is in heaven, like, ‘I told you, I told you.’”
Ralph credits the power of her work to the support and affection of her family. She was born in Connecticut but mostly grew up in Long Island and Jamaica. Her father was a college professor and her mother a fashion designer, and both valued the role of education.
Ralph describes herself as a rule-follower and an obedient kid: “I was that child that so believed my parents could see me by radar — that if my mother told me to be home before dark, and I wasn’t, that she was going to be able to find exactly where I was. I just felt that my parents had superpowers. So, I listened to my parents. I was definitely the good girl. And if I could figure [out] a way to get ahead, I was getting ahead.”
And she had always been mesmerized by performance, watching her dad take the stage with the church choir and, during trips with him to New York, watching pros like James Earl Jones in “The Great White Hope” and Melba Moore in “Purlie.”
“I was Melba Moore for weeks,” she says. “I would daydream in orchestra class, fantasizing that I was Melba Moore.”
But as she plotted her own future, she took her head out of the clouds. At 16, she enrolled at Rutgers University and completed her degree requirements in just three years. She entered as a premed student, trying to be the dutiful daughter of immigrant parents who sacrificed so much.
“It wasn’t about my dreams, it was about my mom’s dreams for me,” she says. “So I was a premed student, and then law — because if you’re not going to be a doctor, then you’re going to be a lawyer. I went into constitutional law and it just wasn’t working out. I ended up auditioning for a role in college and I got it. And that was it. It starts like that. You get drunk with the applause. You don’t ever want to be without that.”
After her breakthrough with “Dreamgirls” on Broadway, Ralph set her sights on Hollywood. She worked with Sidney Poitier in 1977’s “A Piece of the Action,” and with Robert De Niro in 1992’s “Mistress.” Millennial viewers have a soft spot for her motherly turns on “Moesha” and “Sister Act 2.” Her more recent credits include “Ray Donovan” and “Claws.”
“She’s always been very dedicated to the work and the craft,” says actor Jenifer Lewis, a longtime friend who starred alongside Ralph in “Dreamgirls.” “When we sat around during ‘Dreamgirls,’ we were talking about the objectives and the meanings of the words, the meaning of the music and what the show was about. I think she knew that she was perched on the precipice of stardom. We were paying our dues. I am elated, elated, elated for her and this moment. And I mean that — elated for her! Because she’s earned this.”
Before “Abbott Elementary” came along, Ralph had booked an ABC family drama pilot, “Harlem’s Kitchen,” starring opposite Delroy Lindo. Ralph was set to play the matriarch of a family-run restaurant whose world gets turned upside down after an unexpected death thrusts the family into personal and financial turmoil. But the show became a casualty of the pandemic before it even got underway.
Reflecting on it now, Ralph says, “God was actually moving pieces.
“Out of the blue I get a call from Quinta Brunson. She says: ‘Miss Ralph, I know you’re at the point in your career where you’re used to people offering you things, but if you could just meet the people involved with this project of mine, it would be a good thing. And she said: ‘Plus, I think everybody’s sleeping on the great actress that you are.’ I was like, ‘Girl, talk to me some more.’”
Ralph had worked with Brunson before on “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” When she read the script for “Abbott Elementary,” she felt like something bigger was at play. Since 2005, Ralph has been married to Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes, who has made educational equality part of his policy efforts.
“I said to myself, ‘OK, God, now you’re really messing with me,’” Ralph says. “I’m married to a politician in Philadelphia whose lifelong call has been to get the state to pay more attention to the education of the state’s children. … So, I’m like, ‘God, why have you got me in this show?’”
It’s no surprise to Ralph that the sitcom has resonated with teachers as the stress of educators, intensified by the pandemic, has come sharply into focus.
“With ‘Abbott,’ with Barbara, I want for teachers to be seen, and what they go through to be understood,” she says. “You saw how when we went through COVID, people all of a sudden were like, ‘I had no idea what the teachers go through. You mean to tell me my child’s behavior is this bad? Oh, it’s so hard keeping my child engaged for one hour, much less six hours. Oh, my God, can I drop them off now?’ We heard all of those things that people said, and teachers were finally like, ‘This is what we put up with.’”
The subject spurs Ralph’s own examination of what drives her, and of her answer to the question posed to her most often by younger creatives: How have you done it?
“I’m a kid of the ’60s,” she says. “You better move forward or they kill you. They kill you with bad words, they kill you with bad attitude, they kill you with low expectations, they kill you by ignoring you, they kill you by not seeing you, they kill your dreams. You have to be girded up for success. Everything I did was the right thing to do then. And they’re noticing it now.”