Icon Index: Sheryl Lee Ralph Reflects On Her Storied Career & Finding Balance
Tony-nominated Broadway star. Recording Artist. Television's favorite mother and teacher. Film queen. Dreamgirl. Author. Activist. Innovator. These are just a few titles that Sheryl Lee Ralph has held over her five-decade-long career. The longtime star has seen the entertainment industry's constant shifts, but her charisma, good-hearted nature, wit (and talent, of course) are the reason for her steadfast position.
And the star continues to make career firsts: Back in July, Ralph scored her first-ever Primetime Emmy Award nomination for best supporting actress in a comedy series thanks to her no-nonsense role as Barbara Howard in ABC’s Abbott Elementary. Created by Quinta Brunson, the hit series' second season premieres on Sept. 21.
"[Icon means] a mark of a time. A mark of a place. A mark of a season. A mark of an age. A mark of a decade. A mark of a moment. It is something that really takes you right back to that time and place, it’s an ‘iconic’ moment," Ralph tells EDITION. "An iconic being. There’s so many of them you know, and when you look at them you go right back and you say 'I know exactly where I was' or 'I remember that show, or that musical, or that movie.'”
Below, Ralph goes down career memory lane with EDITION.
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Would you consider yourself an icon? Because I do consider you to be one, but I don’t want to just put that title on you.
Well you know, when someone says “it’s iconic” it means that whatever it is, it is a mark of a certain kind and it reminds them of a ‘certain kind’. It's a statement, it’s an image, it’s a being, it’s a person of a certain kind. So if you’re talking about [in the different ages] I guess for a lot of people Dreamgirls is iconic, and Moesha is iconic. Sister Act 2 is iconic. Ray Donavan is iconic. And certainly Abbott Elementary is iconic. And there’s one thing that all of those have in common and that would be me, Sheryl Lee Ralph. So in many ways, I guess that makes me iconic.
Both of us come from a Jamaican background. I feel like our country has the most ambitious people. But with that ambition, our parents may want us to be a doctor or a lawyer, or just take on more traditional roles. When you decided you wanted to be in this entertainment industry, what did your mother think of that?
Absolutely! You know my mother said, “Be a doctor, be a lawyer, and if you can’t do that then marry one!” Of course, I did none of those things. But I had the balance of my American father who said “you've got to live your life, and you’ve got to live your life for you.” So I had my mother in one ear and my father in another who encouraged me to go live my life, so I did.
I’ve seen being Jamaican trickle into plenty of your roles. Actually the first Sheryl Lee Ralph film I saw was The Mighty Quinn. That’s such a staple in the Jamaican household. Also, Moesha integrated you talking about your character's mother and her own move to Jamaica later in the series. I like that the way you grew up also reflected in the roles that you played.
Yes! You know it’s so interesting, when people talk about Jamaica and Moesha they say “Well wait a minute, Dee left for Jamaica and we didn’t see her again,” but we saw her six times after that. But yes, she did leave and go off to Jamaica.
Was that intentional on your part? To give a mainstream audience a little taste of your culture?
Absolutely! I am always encouraging people to make it Jamaican again, and again, and again. Jamaica is one of my most favorite places on earth. Going back every summer with my mother and spending time there in Mandeville, I loved it so much. Now my kids love it just as much. In fact they loved it so much they created the movement, a yoga movement, called “walkgood” [walking, hiking, yoga] and just paying attention to your wellbeing, so it’s very much a part of who I am.
I want to talk about Dreamgirls. Take me back to that opening night in 1981. Before you even touched the stage, what was running through your mind?
First of all, anybody who was anybody was in the audience. It was amazing. Everybody was really really anticipating the opening night of Dreamgirls. I’m surrounded by some of the greatest talents in our generation, from Jennifer Holiday to Loretta Devine to Obba Babatunde to Ben Harney. I mean it was just amazing the talent that was in that cast. We all knew we were about to do something very very big, and that’s exactly what happened. I was so excited and I had my gold gown, my gold earrings, my gold shoes. I was so excited about the afterparty. It was just so exciting. In some ways the hype and everything that people were feeling about that show makes me think about Abbott Elementary and how people feel and talk about the show, and how they come back to it two or three times. I couldn’t be happier.
So how was the afterparty for Dreamgirls?
It was amazing. I had on the most beautiful gold dress with a deep, deep v [neckline] with large sleeves. It’s interesting because I saw a copy of the dress recently on social media and I was like, ‘Oh my god, that is the gown! That is the same style I wore 40 years ago for the premiere of Dreamgirls on Broadway, the same gold and everything.’ What goes around comes around. But it was an amazing night.
I know you’ve always had a love for acting and singing, but when did you realize the spark that drove you to do it professionally?
I think I was always a performer, I was born performing. My mother says that when I was born, you know there was a time when they used to slap a baby on the butt to make sure they were alive, the doctor said there was no need to slap me because I was already laughing. So there was something about me that just came ready to perform in some ways. You know you perform in church, in the choir and the orchestra at school, always looking for the light to shine on you and enjoying the applause. Even through speaking or debates, we all want to find our ways to shine.
Did you have any artists growing up that you really gravitated towards?
You know I loved girl groups and I loved bands. I remember Sly and the Family Stone. I remember the Supremes. I remember the Three Degrees. I remember the O’Jays. I remember The Isley Brothers, James Brown, The Sound of Chicago, The Sound of Philadelphia, California Soul, The Fifth Dimension, all of those things had an impact on me. To see all of the differences in music, in the sound, in Black folks, the way they dress, the way they walk, the way they talk. It was amazing. And then of course there were things like the average white band, they were pretty good. There was just so much music to be heard and it all had such an influence.
You released your debut album In the Evening in 1984. Would you ever consider releasing another album?
You know you can always think about it. Every year someone asks me “where is the Christmas album?” and I’m like “Oh my god.” So yeah, maybe this is the year, this year or next year, that I’ll get it done.
Do you ever revisit that album?
No, I don’t listen to myself, and I don’t watch myself. But I'm fascinated when I go to different places and I hear it come on and people call my name but they don’t realize that it’s actually me. It’s so funny because oftentimes people take it out of context, very often they look into the song and they can not put it together with Sheryl Lee Ralph the actress. No matter where you go every summer, anywhere around the world, the song is playing in clubs because it has become a great LGBTQ/ Gay anthem.
What was your initial reaction to getting a Tony nomination for Dreamgirls?
Oh, I was so happy. I mean Loretta [Divine] and I was with the show from the very very beginning. From the time when it was a fifties girls group, and you know going through the songs that got cut and the songs that stayed. Joseph Papp had it and turned away from it. When Quincy Jones turned away from it. When Michael Bennett really took it to the forefront as the director and Tom Eyen saw his dreams come true, which was project number nine turned Dreamgirls. It was amazing to have gone all that way and to come out with a Tony nomination. I’ll forever be a Tony-nominated actor.
READ MORE: HOW QUINTA BRUNSON MADE THE NEXT GREAT AMERICAN SITCOM
Moving on to Abbott Elementary, do you see parallels between your character Barbara and yourself? I feel like although she comes off as a rigid school teacher initially, we see her layers peel away and she becomes more vulnerable. As a viewer, it shows that there is always room for growth no matter what age. You have shapeshifted throughout your career, which shows that you can have second winds, second chapters—no matter how old you are in this business.
You know it’s like I tell people all the time “never give up. Don't you ever give up, and especially don’t you give up on yourself. And don’t give up on your dreams.” Suppose I had listened to some of the no’s that were told to me. Suppose I got discouraged. I wouldn’t be right here where I am, enjoying the fruits of my labor. Enjoying the fact that I did hang in there in time to be here for Abbott Elementary. I can't not tell people just how happy I am, it is just an amazing time.
Have you learned anything about yourself playing this role?
I think I'm probably more like Mrs. Howard than I would like to admit. Although a lot of people have made a connection between my very first movie A Piece of the Action where I played young Barbara Hanley. They were saying 'Of course, Barbara Howard is a great teacher because she understands what it’s like to need a great teacher since she was Barbara Hanley.' All I could say was 'Wow', it’s amazing how people can put things together like that. When you look at it that way, it does make a lot of sense. And Barbara Howard, she may be a tough cookie, but she means the things that she says and she believes in you. She’s not gonna stop until you are your best and I love that about her!
Speaking of full circle moments, you produced Thoughts of a Colored Man last year. I'm curious to know what are some of the tools that you brought from your experience on Broadway to that production?
You know while producing Thoughts of a Colored Man I thought about my relationship with the cast. I talked about how to get the word out so people know about the show. We talked about figuring out how to survive during a pandemic for as long as you can. Being tenacious, not giving up, and not quitting on yourself. Loving your show enough to fight for your show. All the things that I learned through Dreamgirls. You know producing is never just about money it’s about so many things.
Yu’re an actor, a producer, you sing, you do so many things and do it so consistently. I think that's something that people are just now giving you your flowers for now. You’re always relevant no matter what era you’re in. How do you balance that?
I value young people. I value their thoughts and their perception. Little things, like what are my children listening to? What are they watching? I’m trying to keep up with technology and handle my social media myself. I think it’s all about knowing you’ve got to change with the times. Sure if you love blue eyeshadow you can wear it, but it’s not the same sky blue from 1960 or '70 you know. You gotta change. It’s not the punk hair from the ’80s, it’s not hip-hop, it’s changing. You have to know what is current and keep yourself current.
If I were to open your Spotify or Apple Music, what would I find? Who are you listening to right now?
I listen to a lot! You know I just finished working on a film with Leon Bridges so I got some Leon Bridges up there. In fact, let me go to my library right now. We’ve got Chronixx, Masego, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Sapp, Young Bull, Common. I’ve got Donald Lawrence and Nicholas Britell, and I’ve got the whole album for Bridgerton. As you see it’s very eclectic.
What is one piece of advice that has always stuck with you throughout your career?
Be as kind as you can to as many people as you can for as long as you can. Because the same ass you kicked today might be the same ass you gotta kiss tomorrow. I could tell you the number of times young people bringing me coffee turn around and own the company. Or they came to a party for your kids and now they got a script and are calling you. Be as kind as you can for as long as you can. I’ve seen a lot, I haven’t seen it all but I have seen a lot.
What else is on your bucket list? You have done so much.
I don’t have bucket lists, I just live my life because I know I will never do everything that I want to do. Am I gonna take up the violin again? Am I gonna pick up piano again? Am I gonna experience the continent of India, or go back to China, or produce a new television show? There are so many things I'd like to do. It’s a lot but with the right balance and support, we will see what is possible.