Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph is an icon. From being the youngest graduate in the history of Rutgers University at 19-years old to landing her breakthrough role as Deena Jones in the classic Broadway musical Dreamgirls (1981), for which she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical, she’s been a force to be reckoned with.
Over her illustrious career, Ralph has amassed numerous film credits including The Mighty Quinn (1989), The Distinguished Gentleman (1992), Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993), Deterrence (1999), amongst several others. And who can forget her starring role as Dee Mitchell on Moesha, one of our fave sitcoms when we were coming up.
Below, EBONY caught up with the legendary actress and trailblazer and discussed with her the state of denial of certain segments of our community regarding the pandemic, the formidable power of womanhood, and her new role as a female force to be reckoned with in Freeform’s supernatural hit drama, Motherland: Fort Salem.
EBONY: Tell us how has the pandemic affected you as a person and as an artist?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: I have to tell you, as a human being it was very, very sad to lose my uncle very early in this ordeal. It really was awful, you know, not being able to see him, not being able to share the last hours and days of his life—and it happened so quickly. That was really, really horrible. It has been very difficult through all this time to still hear people refuse to acknowledge the science, to refuse to wear a mask, to refuse to take care of others the way they would like to be taken care of themselves.
I did a lot of work around HIV and AIDS and that virus that was quite strong in its day and is still living with us now. But when we realized and knew that condoms were a proven barrier against the virus, some people still didn’t want to use them or get tested. People would go for one test, then wouldn’t go back for the follow-up test. It was horrible. But it’s more horrible now to see people refuse to wear masks, a known barrier to COVID-19; people refusing to take the vaccination to protect themselves and take and protect others; people refusing to acknowledge that the science is real.
I couldn’t agree more. Please tell us, what was the process like when you became a part of the cast Motherland: Fort Salem?
Eliot Laurence, the writer, producer, creator—I’d worked with him on a series called Claws— said to me, “I’ve got a new show and a great role for you.” And I was like, “Okay, what is it?” He said, “The President of the United States. In fact, the 45th President of the United States in an alternative world with the future is feminine and the power is too. I was like, “I loved everything about what you just said.” When it came to fruition, I was just like, “I am President Kelly Wade.” The only one thing I wanted him to do for me was to change her name. I really wanted to be President Michelle Wade. Now, that would have been something to have been called Michelle. But I’m Kelly Wade and I love this character. This is a woman of power, true power, real power. If people think she’s a strong president now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Motherland: For Salem is a supernatural drama based in an alternative universe, and a major theme in the show is the power of femininity and womanhood. Why is it important for you to want to embody that in this show?
I just think it’s so amazing that we are getting to see this world where female power is everything; where woman time is now; where we’re we’re bending what we think the genders should do; where we’re bending the place in society where we thought that women shouldn’t do this or shouldn’t do that. We realize now that a woman’s place is in the house and that’s any house she wants to be in. That could be the House of Representatives, the one in her house, the one in her office, any house she wants to be in—that’s the house she belongs and deserves to be in. To see these women doing so many things—carrying on and creating legacy and generations—it’s a world where you’re not going to discount a woman because she’s going to produce and these women produce greatness.
You know I was so upset when that sneaker company said to their pregnant influencer/brand ambassador, “You know what, you’re pregnant, so we’re not going to pay you any more money. In fact, just take a 75% pay cut.” And what did she go on to do? Allyson Felix won her 11th Olympic medal! I want to say to that shoe company, ‘How do you feel now after discounting that woman?” Don’t ever discount a woman!
Lastly, what do you want the viewers to come away with after watching you play President Kelly Wade?
The future is feminine. The power, the true power, is feminine—and guard your power. Not everybody needs to know your strength. They just don’t need to know. In fact, that might be your greatest power.