For Sheryl Lee Ralph, playing educator Barbara Howard on the hit series Abbott Elementary came pretty naturally. For one, Ralph, with a decades-spanning career on both the stage and screen, is just a superb actress. And also, it’s literally in her blood. “I come from a family of educators,” the Emmy Award winner tells Refinery29. There is her father, who broke the color line in Connecticut as a music teacher; her Auntie Carole, an elementary school principal in DC who invited the Queen of England to visit her school (she reportedly came twice); and her niece who’s currently working on a Masters in Education in New York. “These are people who dared to push the envelope for themselves and their students,” Ralph says. “And I love playing a character like Barbara Howard who does it for her students.”
Ralph is daring to do “it” too — if “it” refers to an illustrious career as Deena Jones in the original broadway version of Dreamgirls and Deidra “Dee” Mitchell in Moesha, to name a mere few; awards show sweeps with tear-inducing and inspiring speeches; and an upcoming Super Bowl performance. Ahead of her showcase at the 57th Super Bowl on Sunday, Refinery29 spoke with Ralph, who’s also recently partnered with disinfectant spray brand Microban24 to educate consumers on protecting themselves from surface bacteria, about her turn on Abbott, and how it feels to receive her flowers at this point in her career. (TL;DR: Incredible!).
Refinery29: You said you come from a long line of educators. I love that you have a personal connection to teachers and the education system. Has playing Barbara made you feel in any way more connected to your family?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: “I've come from a very connected family. So even when we disagree, we're still connected. My dad has since passed away, [but] my aunt is very much alive and in many ways, she's getting her flowers now as people recognize Barbara Howard. And it's just been great for all of us… [Education] is just something that we do and now I play Barbara Howard, another teacher to the tribe.”
You’ve had a long career before Abbott, but the show and your incredible awards circuit speeches — especially your 2022 Emmys speech — have resonated with so many people, especially younger generations who may not be as familiar with some of your career. What has it meant to you to receive this outpouring of love at this point in your career?
“One of the students on [Abbott Elementary] looked at me, and they said ‘Miss Ralph, I have been watching you my whole life.’ And I had to say, thank you for those seven good years. (laughs) I am just so thrilled with the fact that there's so many generations, decades of my career, that I can sometimes tell how old people are by what it is they love. I know if they love Dreamgirls, the original musical, they're approaching 40 and above. I know that if they're talking about Sister Act 2, they're in their 30s. I know that if they're talking about Ray Donovan, heck they could be any age. And I know that if it's Abbott Elementary, well, it's the right now of it all.”
Looking at the right now, people have different ways of framing or viewing this moment in your career, as a recognition, a renaissance, a revival. How do you see it?
“It is the best time in my life. I don't know if there are a lot of people that are experiencing the kind of shared love that I get from people. I don't know a lot of people who get to experience that. And that has been wonderful! To talk to young people and for them to want to be in your company, for people who might have written you off to come back and look at you and say: Well girl please, you did it, didn’t you? It's sort of like vindication. It's been really wonderful for me.”
You're performing at the upcoming Super Bowl, where you'll be singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” What does that song and this moment mean for you?
“When we are in a time like this, when so many of the things that my parents told me as a child of the ‘60s that those things would be gone, that we would not have to fight the many ‘isms’ we are up against now, including gun violence. The fact that we are still having to deal with racism, that people are still having to say, ‘Well, do you really believe in feminism?’ These’ isms’ that people are still considering, it can be mind boggling. But, I have hope that singing this song, it’s the faith that the dark past has taught me, it's the hope that this present has brought me. We carry on and we gird ourselves up to continue fighting the good fight and let everybody add their voice to the chorus and let us sing in the harmonies.”
You've done so much on the stage and on TV. What would you like to do next?
“Working on a children's book, working on the next Christmas album, working on something for the children on the dance floor for summertime. And also, really digging deep. I’m looking for the hardware to go with my EGOT swag bags. Viola Davis just became an EGOT, and I realized I'm the EGOT of swag bags. I have an Emmy swag bag, I have two Oscar swag bags, I have three Tony swag bags, and I have two Grammy swag bags. Now I need the hardware to go into all of them.”
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.