Sheryl Lee Ralph, who burst onto the Broadway scene in her role as Deena Jones in the original run of the Broadway hit musical Dreamgirls, has successfully crossed over into prime-time television. After 45 years in show business, the 65-year-old Tony nominee and former star of Broadway’s Wicked is finding new fans yet again with ABC’s Abbott Elementary, where she plays rule-follower and veteran kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard.
Is there a teacher who inspires your role?
My Auntie Caroline is a teacher in D.C.; my brother Stanley is a special ed teacher in Albany; my sister-in-law, Andrea, is a teacher turned principal; my dad broke the color line back in Connecticut when he was a young man [music teacher]; my niece Yanna just told me she has received the calling and has been accepted into NYU to further her master’s and doctorate program in teaching. So I am surrounded by educators.
Why act, not teach?
I was much better at it. I always knew I was going to be an actor. If I wasn’t going to be an actor, I was going to be a doctor or lawyer because that’s what my mother told me — and if I couldn’t be a doctor or a lawyer, then I should just marry one. I said, “You know what? I will just play one and that will be so much better.” That has worked for me in a wonderful way.
You’ve called Sidney Poitier your inspiration. How so?
He cast me in my very first movie [1977’s A Piece of the Action]. He was an incredible mentor to me. He very much tried to encourage me to stay in a business that did not have enough to offer me. He felt very bad for me. He sent me away with great tools.
Abbott Elementary gets all the love but you’re also on another show. Tell me more about that.
It’s a series I love, Motherland: Fort Salem. It is all about the femme power: The world is completely changed, women are in power, women are leading. I play the 45th president in an alternative world. This is a series that in about a year or two, people are going to discover it and say, “How in the world did we miss this show? How did that happen?”
In a very long career, what dominates your memory?
I’ll never, ever, ever forget the hand that I had in creating and bringing Deena Jones to life in Dreamgirls, in the original Broadway company of Dreamgirls. I will never, ever forget Florence Watkins, Sister Act 2. I’ll never forget A Piece of the Action with Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby. I will never, ever forget Abbott Elementary and Barbara Howard. I’ll never forget Claudette in Ray Donovan. I’ll never, ever forget what I’ve been able to do in every generation that has kept me relevant. I have no favorite because they’re all basically a rung on the ladder.
You’re cast as 'the elder' on Abbott Elementary. How do you find that role?
I’m very happy that I am that elder, the wise one that they respect. When Barbara Howard speaks, people sit up straight. When she gives the side-eye, people receive the message, and she doesn’t have to say anything. I love it. In fact, the side-eye is my love language.
What’s your advice to the younger generation?
It’s the advice that my Aunt Virginia Capers — who won the Tony Award for Raisin — gave me. Aunt Virginia said, “Be as kind as you can for as long as you can, to as many people as you can, because the same a** you kick today is the same a** you’ll have to kiss tomorrow.”
How did you fare during the pandemic?
My husband [Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent J. Hughes] and I have a commuter relationship, so we see each other every two weeks. [But during the pandemic] I was with my husband for 18 months, and it was some of the best times we ever spent. We had a ball. We did a lot of laughing; we did a lot of talking. A lot of people fell out of love with each other, but we were able to fall more in love with each other. It was a gift.
Do you have an acting bucket list?
Why wouldn’t you want to work with the likes of Meryl Streep? Why wouldn’t you want to work with the likes of an Angela Bassett? I still want to do a frenemy movie with my friend, [actor] Jenifer Lewis. There are so many things that I would love to do. I still want to work with Tom Cruise. I still want to be a superhero. Yes, I want to fly through the sky, yes.
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