Sheryl Lee Ralph on Playing ’Abbott Elementary’s Breakout Educator & Being ‘Blackfamous’ (Exclusive)

Sheryl Lee Ralph
Ryan Powell

The star spoke with ET about the ABC comedy's raging success, her long-standing career and how the industry's changed.

Sheryl Lee Ralph has been a staple of Black Hollywood since her breakthrough role as Deena Jones in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls. The 65-year-old actress scored a Tony nomination for the musical and captured the hearts of millions, which became the norm with her every role over the last five decades.

So it's no surprise that her portrayal as the velvety-voiced, no-nonsense, God-fearing Barbara Howard on ABC's mega-hit TV show, Abbott Elementary, has become a viral sensation. And while there have been a lot of memorable roles throughout Ralph's nearly 50-year career, it all started with Dreamgirls.

"You know, just like doing Abbott, when I was doing Dreamgirls, I knew we were doing something very special. I knew in my heart," she told ET about playing the musical's first-ever Deena and becoming an icon of musical theater. "I knew that little Black girls would be able to look up on the stage and have an image of beauty, class, sophistication, dreams, heartache, moving-on-up affirmation. I knew we were doing all of that."

Ralph explained that she, along with Loretta Devine, Ramona Brooks and theater director Michael Bennett, created Dreamgirls through "improvisation" developed through workshops.

"A lot of the story is about what we, the originals, put into those roles and the suggestions we made around the development of the show," she shared. "So I knew how special it would be if it would be a hit, if it could last. And the fact is that it has lasted. Forty years and it remains one of people's favorite musicals of all time. I can get messages and emails and videos from all around the world with all different kinds of Dreamgirls in their own languages. It's absolutely amazing to me. And I'm very thankful to have my own chapter in theater history."

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Deena Jones is one of the roles that solidified Ralph as "Blackfamous," in addition to dozens of film and television roles such as Lola Quinn, the wife of Denzel Washington in The Mighty Quinn, the beloved Dee Mitchell in Moesha and the fierce mama bear Florence Watson in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. 

By definition, "Blackfamous" is when an individual or piece of media is most popular among Black people while remaining relatively unknown among white individuals. Previously, in conversation with The Hollywood Reporter for a roundtable, the actress recalled a past incident on a TV set where a higher-up member did not recognize her despite her celebrated career. 

"Even in unsuspecting places, that can be very much a thing where there are certain people who have no idea who you are and what you've done after all these years," she mused.

She brought up a similar incident to ET, recalling when she mentioned Washington's name to an editor of "a very large magazine."

"I said, 'Denzel Washington is one of the most handsome, talented, good people ever.' And they were like, 'Really?' And I was like, 'Wow, this is deep,'" she recalled. "Now mind you, this was 30 years ago. But can you imagine that 30 years ago, somebody could not see him as one of the most handsome, one of the most talented human beings in the industry?"

But the industry has changed, the veteran actress declared. "Maybe it's not as fast as a lot of people would have liked it to have been, but yes, it has changed," she added, noting that her current role is a sign of that development. "Because I am in the number one comedy in America created by a young Black woman with a mostly Black cast. That people around the world are loving, that people dare not say, 'Well, maybe it's just a fluke. You know how it can be with those shows.'" 

"No, it is undeniable. We are here. We are some of the best and we are doing some of the best work ever in the industry," Ralph declared. "So yes, the industry has changed. For the better. And I'm so pleased. Amen. I am around right now to be a part of it."

Created by and starring Quinta Brunson, the half-hour mockumentary-style series follows a group of dedicated and passionate teachers -- and a slightly tone-deaf principal -- at a Philadelphia public school where, despite the odds stacked against them, are determined to help their students succeed in life. Though the educators may be outnumbered and underfunded, they love what they do -- even if they don't particularly care for the school district's less-than-stellar attitude toward educating children.

Ralph's Barbara immediately struck a chord with viewers, and it's a toss-up whether it's because she reminds them of their mothers, a beloved teacher from their past or she's just that funny to watch. But there's no question that the role is one of Ralph's most successful to date. The actress is one of the hopeful frontrunners to score an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress when they announce nominations this summer.

It would be a career-first nomination for Ralph, who had nothing but gratitude when asked how it feels to be recognized by her peers and fans.

"Ain't God good? Isn't it wonderful to have people talking about you that way, you know, isn't it wonderful that people see your work?" she asked. "I got a call from LaTanya and Samuel L. Jackson, and it was simple, 'We see you, girl. We see you, Mrs. Howard.' And it was so wonderful! I'm thankful and it means a lot, but I have to tell you, I'm shocked by it."

With such a stellar ensemble that includes Brunson, Tyler James Williams, Janelle James, Lisa Ann Walter, and Chris Perfetti, Ralph was under the (very wrong) impression that her Barbara wouldn't stand out among the cast.

The inspiration for the veteran teacher comes from her first role as Barbara Hadley alongside Sidney Poitier in the film A Piece of the Action, Ralph shared.

"Here was this rough girl who came up the rough side of the mountain and had a teacher who just didn't understand her and I connected the dots, saying to myself, 'Here she has grown up to be Barbara Howard, the teacher who understands what her students need because they're all different,'" she explained. "I grew up around all of these Barbara Howards and, for me, it was to just give them life, give them a voice. I didn't think it was going to be anything that anybody was going to pay this kind of attention to. But I'm thankful."

Ralph mused that Brunson, who spearheaded much of the casting for the ensemble, must have "handpicked" the actors for the roles.

"I think she saw something in each of us that was the seed of the characters. And it just proves that in some way, I'm definitely a Barbara Howard," Ralph said, later sharing that the voice and nature of the character came naturally to her when she first read the script. "I'm definitely that woman and that teacher, you know, so, I love the fact that so many teachers are so happy with Barbara Howard."

On the other hand, Ralph wasn't surprised by the love for the series itself; she noted that "there's something about the truths we tell every week" that keeps viewers' attention. 

"There's something about a show that raises the platform for educators, the administrators and all the people that help make our education work," she added, pointing out how Abbott Elementary doesn't make teachers the butt of the joke but highlights how they are the heart and soul of the show. 

"We get to talk about things that need attention. Why should teachers have to be raising money to get supplies in their classrooms? Why is it that there are school districts where the books are 10 years old and teachers are having to play catch up? That shouldn't be happening in America. We should be doing more for the 'greatest country's' wonderful children," she said.

"We get to tell some of those truths with Abbott Elementary in a way that is smart, that is funny and is needed right now."  

Abbott Elementary has officially been renewed for a second season and will return in the fall. The first season can be streamed on Hulu.