Sheryl Lee Ralph’s career may be on fire right now, but the flame has been burning for more than 40 years.
“I’ve been at this since I was 19,” says the actress, 66. “That’s a whole lot of years.”
Sitting in a vintage wooden classroom chair at the historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, Ralph radiates a disarming blend of self-confidence and warmth. And she comes by her confidence honestly. After becoming the youngest woman ever to graduate from Rutgers University, at age 19, Ralph won her first feature film role, beating out the director’s own daughter. That director? Sidney Poitier. TV parts followed — as did, in 1981, a starring role in the original cast of Broadway’s multiple-Tony-winning musical Dreamgirls. Since then, Ralph has starred opposite Denzel Washington in The Mighty Quinn, stepmothered Brandy for six seasons on Moesha and emerged as Jon Voight’s ex on Ray Donovan.
Despite all that, it is her role as kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard, the prim voice of reason on ABC’s Abbott Elementary — renewed for a third season — that finally garnered Ralph her first Emmy, among a clutch of other awards, and introduced her to a much wider audience. (As have other gigs: You may have heard her perform “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” on the field before this year’s Super Bowl.)
What that wider audience is discovering is what longtime fans have known for years: Ralph is a veritable font of positivity and wisdom. She recently took time out from her schedule to talk to us about her philosophy, her long-distance marriage and kids, and the long journey to her current success.
Q. How did you get involved with Abbott Elementary?
I knew the creator, Quinta Brunson, who plays a young teacher on the show. She’s just a genius to me. She has alchemy. I had worked with her on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, and she wanted me for the pilot of Abbott.
Then I read the script and loved that it was shining a light on educators. My husband, Vincent Hughes, is a state senator in Pennsylvania, and he has been talking about education for years. Why is it we don’t realize that all children in America deserve a great education? Their zip code should not determine whether they get that or not. And here comes this little show, focusing on teachers who make a daily sacrifice for children in a Philadelphia public school. I said, “Even if this is just a pilot, this is a pilot I want to do.”
Q. How do you think comedy works to approach a serious subject like the problems in city schools?
You can tell the audience something very, very difficult and then make them laugh about it. After they laugh, they start to think. Once my character had a line about staying true to your principles despite criticism: “People have thrown dirt on my name. Others have given flowers. But it’s all a garden to me.”
Q. Quinta Brunson, the showrunner, is 33 years old. What’s it like to be led by someone that age?
For me, that’s what aging looks like. When I started as an actress, my road really wasn’t there. I had to bust rocks to create my road. And now that road is there for my kids and other people’s kids to travel. They might look at those broken rocks by the side of the road and say, “Wait a minute. If we melt that rock, we’ll have four more lanes.” That doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the fact that you busted those rocks. But this is their journey, too, now. You’ve got to celebrate that. Then you’ve got to get yourself a new car, so that you can ride on that smooth new road that they’re creating.