Last week, Sheryl Lee Ralph became a first-time Emmy nominee. The entertainer was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Barbara Howard in the breakout ABC hit Abbott Elementary, and for a star who’s been performing for audiences on stages and TV and film sets for more than 40 years, it was a long time coming.
“I never thought I would see this so I am thrilled at the possibility,” Ralph told ESSENCE amid the EMMY buzz ahead of her official nomination. “I would love to be in that group of actors. I would love to see our whole cast get the attention it deserves. I would love to see Quinta make history. Just the idea, it makes you go, ‘Oh God, I wish, I hope’, but I got the golden ticket. So let’s just put it out there and say, ‘God, you know what? You got me this far, where we going, God, because I know you’ve got great plans.’
Ralph’s career in the entertainment industry began on the stage with her role as Deena Jones in Dreamgirls for which she earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical in 1982. From there, a number of memorable parts that have kept Ralph working steadily for four decades followed, and she has her own list of characters she counts among her favorites.
“I’m going to have to absolutely give it up number one right now to Mrs. Barbara Howard. I love Barbara Howard on Abbott elementary, a role that I was handpicked for. I connect Barbara Howard to Barbara Hanley, my very first role in a movie under the direction of Sydney Poitier. I connect that rough little raw ghetto child to the woman that Barbara Howard has become. I would also have to say how much I love Deena Jones, a character that I created, a character that Tom Eyen gave to me and said, ‘Put yourself in this character’ and a character that has now become such a focal point in theater. We saw her in movies, played by Beyoncé, and I now see Deena Jones as an iconic, character for people. I love her.
“I also love Rita Lu Watson’s mother, Mrs. Watson,” Ralph continues. “I love that character and the way it has really built itself into the hearts and minds of generation of young people. I also love Claudette on Ray Donovan. You know, you’re talking about a woman who was a stripper on the pole and she got that money and she reinvented herself and shows the best life possible for herself. I love that about the character. And then I love President Kelly Wade on Motherland Fort Salem, where I play the 45th president in an alternative world. And I just thank Elliot Lawrence for creating such an amazing character for me to play for three seasons.”
Though she’s already named the requested five characters, Ralph adds a sixth that members of this generation hold most fondly in their memories. “Oh — and I can’t leave out Dee,” she says in reference to her TV mother role on Moesha.
Good roles can be hard to come by for even the best actress and even harder for a Black woman in Hollywood. But as a child of the ’60s, Ralph, now 66, says her parents prepared her the harsh realities of racism, which are much more difficult outside of Tinseltown than within. “I really believe it was the strength and love of my parents,” she says of her resilience. “I’m an immigrant’s child and my mother, that strong Jamaican woman that said ‘You are brilliant. You are beautiful,’ she was so supportive in always making me feel good about my myself.”
‘Being a child of the sixties was very difficult. Bullying was at a level that was just short of having guns and walking into the supermarket and targeting you,” she continues. “It was the kind of thing that could truly break your spirit. But my parents, my father and my mother were so good about encouraging me and my brothers to move forward, to try and close your eyes to the heinous things that we saw, the out and out assassination and murders of good people. The fact that things like lynching were a real thing. The fact that you’ve always known in your community that Black folks disappear at night.”
“I think about things like that and to have my parents say, ‘But you’re going to make it. We’re going to make it to the other side — having faced that, what’s Hollywood got for me?
While in the end God’s plans differed from Ralph’s own — or perhaps her parents’ who, in typical Caribbean household fashion, encouraged their daughter to become a doctor or lawyer, the singer, actress, and activist is clear she was going to be good either way.
“Listen, no matter what I ended up doing, I was going to have a great life,” Ralph says. “I was going to love my life because I was put here to live life and just like on my Twitter and my Instagram, I encourage people to rise to the occasion of your own life.
“I could have been a doctor, I could have been a lawyer. I could have been a minister. I could have been a social worker. I could have been a housewife, whatever it was, I was going to be happy in my life. And I was going to raise some wonderful children, like my two children, Etienne and Ivy and I was going to live my life.”