Booked, Busy, and Beloved: Sheryl Lee Ralph Still Has It Going On

Image: Jeremy David

Sheryl Lee Ralph is an undeniable star who has graced both the stage and television screens with elegance and style for decades. From starring as the original Deena in Dreamgirls to her latest role in ABC’s Abbott Elementary, she never fails to deliver landmark characters that capture our hearts. To put it plainly—she has the range.

The sensational actress sat down with EBONY to reflect on how she stays booked, busy and beloved, no matter the character she embodies.

EBONY: First and foremost, happy belated birthday and happy new year!  Do you have any goals for this new year of life?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: I do the same thing every year— I thank God and Goddess for the great life I have led and I ask for more.  I don’t do a lot of these resolutions and things like that because I learned real early that resolutions were made to be broken. So, I just carry on with my life, wishing to be better than I was. That’s all. 

This past December marked 40 phenomenal years of the legendary Broadway production, Dreamgirls. Can you reflect on the impact the production has since had on your life and your career?

The legacy of Dreamgirls is a wonderful one. To be a part of American theater history and to have been a part of something that I actually contributed to with my real talent is so wonderful. A lot of it was born out of improvisation so a lot of what you see in Deena is a lot of Sheryl Lee Ralph’s true story. We sold our rights for about a dollar, similar to what happened with the cast of A Chorus Line. They did a class action suit and they got the money that they were deserved but we didn’t do anything like that. But still, we have the legacy. For me, it’s important to hold on to the legacy so that people know that before the movie there was Dreamgirls, the Musical, and that gave birth to the movie.

You’re still active in the theater realm today as you’ve had the privilege of working as a Producer on Thoughts of a Colored Man. How has your experience been working on that play?

I thought to myself, “here we are 40 years later and I come back as a producer on Broadway with another huge piece of American theater history.” In all of the years of theater, Broadway, New York City, the Great White Way, there had never been a play written by a Black man. A play directed by a Black man. A play with a lead producer as a black man— that had never before happened. Four decades later, here I am as part of a production team of that caliber.  An aside, Michael Bennett, who really took Dreamgirls to the next level with Tom Eyen, was mad at me for something one day. And he said, “uh, when it says, ‘Sheryl Lee Ralph Presents,’ that’s when you can talk to me.”  And all the time, I take a moment and think. “Now it says ‘Sheryl Lee Ralph Presents.’ How about that?” 

Image: Jeremy David

In your opinion, how has the ever-evolving nature of Broadway changed for the better for people of color?

What I love is the fact that we’ve got more full scripts. Way back in the day, there were a lot of reviews of sophisticated ladies where they would string a couple of songs together and choreograph them to the music of Eubie Blake, for example. Now we’ve got so many full, well-rounded, well-scripted shows— Caroline or Change, Trouble in Mind, TINA, Ain’t Too Proud.  Even though they’ve sadly closed to COVID-19, that’s four or five shows already out there that are masterfully telling complex and beautiful stories.

What we need to do next is figure out a way to make it affordable for more people of color to come and witness. It is much easier to pay twelve to twenty dollars to go see a movie than it is to pay $120 to experience live theater. Live theater is very, very expensive and tends to be for an elite group of people. It stings very often because not everybody can afford to see real theater because there’s something magical about real theater— real people, really acting. It’s not like when we do TV.  If I forget a line, I can say, “can we take that again, please?” There’s no taking it again in live theater. When you walk out there, you have to come prepared and ready. As a cast and as a company, you lean on each other, and you make the show happen. That’s what makes it so spectacular.

In your latest role, Abbott Elementary, you play an elementary school educator named Barbara Howard. How has it been working with Quinta Brunson and the entire team?

I have to tell you that, first of all, I love the entire team. The entire company from Quinta to Janelle to Tyler to Lisa Ann Walter, Chris Perfetti, William Stanford. I mean it’s a fresh ensemble of people that you are going to love. I believe that Abbott Elementary is America’s new favorite TV show. The amount of love that we have gotten after just one episode is something I’ve never experienced. The opening night of Dreamgirls, I got this feeling that we were going to do something that was going to be big. Here I am with Abbott Elementary and I have the same feeling. 

As for Quinta, she may be tiny, but she is mighty. She and I met on a set of Black Lady Sketch Show and she was just looking at me like she was studying me or something. Then I realized “Wow, okay, she likes me. That’s lovely!” I was so impressed as she was hitting her jokes and watching her work. By the end of the day, she was doing cartwheels and singing at the same time and I thought “what can’t she do?”  Later on, I got a call from her. I think she got my phone number from one of my kids. When I answered the phone she said “Mrs. Ralph, I know you are used to getting what you deserve. That is when people know your talent, they offer you things. But if you could just have a conversation with everybody… this role is for you. I need the elegance of my mother in this role.” She had a big idea and I just felt like I wanted to help. From there, it all just came together. That’s how I came to the project. I was so thrilled and happy to work with her. She’s a great leader.

In the classic TV series Moesha, you were everyone’s favorite principal Dee Mitchell, Moesha’s stepmother. What are some similarities or differences that you have maybe brought into Abbott Elementary in comparison to Dee? 

Dee definitely inhabited more of the trappings of Sheryl Lee Ralph but Barbara Howard has my spirit with none of the trappings. She’s got that good wig. She’s got that very natural face beat but with a little bit of fabulosity. She’s got her pearls but don’t let her grab them; and she says things like, “I’m Barbara Howard, woman of God.” You know, she’s completely different from Dee Mitchell. It’s also another gift from Quinta for me to be able to choose when I want to act as an extension of myself and I love that flexibility in this role.

As we’re seeing a shift in the general educational sphere in the United States, especially during this time of COVID, what are you hoping the audience takes away from the new show?

My primary hope for the show is that people love and enjoy it. I hope that the people come back every Tuesday night on ABC to watch it. 

I also hope that there is a national conversation to ‘Build Back Better,’ especially in terms of education. We are seeing that there are too many drastic differences in the educational landscape and in the educating of America’s children.  I’m tired to see that education is reverting back towards great education for some and just mediocre education for others. I hope that we have much more of a conversation where we address better education for all of America’s children.

I’m happy that with our show teachers are not the butt of the joke but are the heart of the whole show. We have the opportunity to highlight what it takes to be a teacher—a good teacher, who loves their job. Being an educator is a true calling. It’s like being a nun— it’s either for you, or it’s not

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