Interview: Abbott Elementary star Sheryl Lee Ralph on how the legendary Sidney Poitier enriched her life and career

Sheryl Lee Ralph on the cast of
Sheryl Lee Ralph plays kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard on the new ABC sitcom, Abbott Elementary. Pic Credit: ABC/Gilles Mingasson.

Abbott Elementary star Sheryl Lee Ralph is fiercely proud of her thoughtful new ABC sitcom that is shining a spotlight on the heroes of our American education system.

The experienced stage actor, who received a Tony nomination for her role as Deena Jones in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, is also known for her TV roles in It’s a Living, New Attitude, and Moesha.

Ralph has also been involved in nearly 50 feature films, including To Sleep with Anger, for which she won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress. Her other movies include The Mighty Quinn (1989), The Distinguished Gentleman (1992), Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993), and Deterrence (1990).

Now she is playing kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard – one of several dedicated and passionate educators who find themselves thrown together in a Philadelphia public school where, despite the odds stacked against them, they are determined to help their students succeed in life.

Though these incredible public servants may be outnumbered and underfunded, they love what they do — even if they don’t love the school district’s less-than-stellar attitude toward educating children. The aim of Abbott Elementary, created by and starring Quinta Brunson, is to bring viewers joy, laughter, and a lot of heart, and also possibly start a discussion that inspires us to support the teachers in our communities.

Shortly after the death of Sidney Poitier, on January 6, 2022, at age 94, Sheryl Lee Ralph spoke to Monsters & Critics about working with the legendary actor/director/producer early in her career, sharing life lessons and what she loves about her new sitcom, Abbott Elementary.

“I’m having a very strange sort of experience here with the show because once we started to shoot it, people literally started to talk about it. And there was all of this sort of underground buzz,” Ralph exclusively told Monsters & Critics. “I’m always fascinated, how do people find these things out? But they wanted to know about the people that were in the show, who was cast, and who our guest stars were, and they could hear this and that and kept wanting to know more.”

Here is a look at Monsters & Critics’ exclusive interview with Sheryl Lee Ralph about her new ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary, her talented co-stars, life lessons, and more.

Monsters & Critics: Sheryl, how are you?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: You know something, I’m sad over the passing of Mr. Sidney Poitier, but am also thankful for his life and what he meant to me and how we carry on.

M&C: He really was a remarkable actor, human being, and humanitarian.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Yes. He was really like a blueprint for all of the things I wanted to be as an artist. All of those things that you just mentioned, and sharing a Caribbean-West Indian background and culture. He was so many wonderful things for me and he cast me in the last of his trilogy with Mr. Cosby called Piece of the Action, my very first film, and that really made a huge difference for me as a young performer.

M&C: Were you humbled to work and learn from him?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh my God, it was a dream come true. When they talk about representation, and you see a movie and you’re a kid and it’s To Sir, with Love, it’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and you see this black man being so classy, so wonderful, and you’re just like, ‘I can do this. I’m going to do this!’

It was amazing when I got the audition for my first film now, and I’m standing in front of Sidney Poitier and he’s looking at me like I’m something special! Oh my God, it was amazing. He was an amazing mentor to me, he stuck with me over the years. He never, never stopped to tell me that I was special, that I was doing a great job, that he expected great things from me. I’m just sad to see that chapter close.

Quinta Bunson and Sheryl Lee Ralph star in Abbott Elementary
Quinta Bunson and Sheryl Lee Ralph star in Abbott Elementary. Pic credit: Gilles Mingasson/ABC

M&C: Can you talk about any of the mentors and teachers and what they taught you?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh, my goodness. Well, I can tell you one thing about Mr. Poitier, in the Piece of the Action, I played a character by the name of Barbara Hanley. And so many people today, they saw some of the clip of my work and they said, “Oh my god, this is how Barbara Howard was when she was a little girl!” 

I was just like, oh my god, people are creating the most wonderful story. Someone said, “This is why she loves what she does. This is why she understands these children, ‘cause she is those children.”  And I was like, oh my god, it’s so funny how Mr. Poitier put me on 360 degrees. And shot the show on the Warner Bros. lot, which is where I shot my very first film with Mr. Poitier at Warner Bros.

I’m so thankful to him. I remember when we finished doing the film, he said, “You’re such a wonderful actress. I wish the industry had more to offer you.”  Because back then, the industry was none too shy about saying to a young black girl trying to get into show business, “There is no place for you. Just give up now.”  And I just refused. And I was just so happy that I had people like Mr. Poitier, like Rosalind Cash.

A lot of people don’t remember Rosalind Cash. She was from South Jersey and Rosalind Cash embraced her natural hair, and the industry tried to blackball her for embracing her natural hair. She was dread long before it became a style or the thing to do. She was holding up the C.R.O.W.N Act.

Virginia Capers, who had won the Tony for Raisin, the musical version of A Raisin in the Sun, took me under her arm when I graduated from college. She was an incredible mentor who advised me, ‘don’t just act; sing and dance, but also write, direct, and produce; prepare for everything this industry will throw at you and earn how to speak another language.’ I’m just amazed at those lessons that I learned from so many of them. It’s just that I was in the company of great performers and they gave me their absolute greatness and it’s really done wonders for me.

M&C: So, Let’s talk about your new show, Abbott Elementary. You’re in this Philadelphia school system, it’s fictional but it also feels very real.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh, absolutely. That’s all Quinta Brunson. We have an amazing creator, executive producer, writer, and leader in Quinta, who is a product of the Philadelphia school system and a UPENN graduate. She is just amazing. Her mom was a teacher in the Philadelphia school system, so she really leaned on what she knew in her life watching her mother, growing up, being here in Philadelphia. So, if some of it seems a little true, that’s because a lot of it is very true.

M&C: What attracted you to some of the things, or the many things that attracted you to the show, and your character Barbara?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: What attracted me to the show was Quinta. She and I worked together on the Black Ladies Sketch Show, and she would spend a lot of time just looking at me like she was doing research; she seemed to be studying me. I thought this was so fascinating as a performer because here is this young, new artist trying to figure it out. I could see myself when I was young looking at Mr. Poitier in the same way. 

When she called me on my phone, after getting the number from one of my kids, She said, “Mrs. Ralph, I’ve got a show, and I know you’re used to people offering you things and that’s just the way it should be. But if you wouldn’t mind meeting the people and reading this, I think it’s going to be a wonderful thing for you.”  How do you say no to that? 

Sheryl Lee Ralph in a scene from Abbott Elementary
Sheryl Lee Ralph in a scene from Abbott Elementary. Pic Credit: Gilles Mingasson/ABC

M&C: What was your reaction to that first script?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Once I read it, I was like, this is really wonderful. I actually loved the role of the principal, but Quinta said, “Nope, you are Mrs. Howard. We need a queen for that role and that’s you.”  I was like, “Oh, my God, this girl is just melting my heart.” So you do a show like this, and then obviously there’s a wait between when you make the pilot and things get picked up and people start watching it.

M&C: So now that the buzz has started, and it’s building its audience and getting a lot of affection, what is that like for you?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Once we did that first episode it was like a big explosion and all the confetti just kept falling down on us and it was wonderful. And then it was like a double boom on the fourth of January. I was just like, oh my god, this is amazing. And for us to do better in January than we did in December, that’s what you want. You want that audience to grow, you want people to find you, love you, stick with you, and grow. And that’s what we’re getting and it’s just magic. It’s absolutely magic.

M&C: How important is the school aspect to you? Can a show like this, even though it’s a comedy, help local school systems or national school systems? What are we saying about them?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: I think it’s already helping because we are having the conversation. We’re talking about teachers. They are not the butt of a joke; they are the heart of this show. Respect is to be given for what teachers do. Even the bad ones. But the great ones, when they are great it is because they are answering a calling and they are here to do something that we as a country, a culture, as people, we need.

We need people with hearts big enough to take on the responsibility of shaping the minds of our nation’s children. And we can see right now that education, education, education is very much needed. Because when we look at Brown vs. the Board of Education, equality is one thing, but what about leveling the inequities? If you give everybody a box, the same size box and they can all stand on the box, it means nothing if they can’t see over the fence.

M&C: Please tell me more.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: So, when we talk in the show about those books that are behind the three presidents, that’s not a joke, that is a sad reality in America. And we might laugh at it, but the fact is everybody gets an education, but not everybody gets a good education. Just because of their color, their culture, and where they live, and that’s not right.

I’m hoping that our show will give people the voice that they don’t know they have. To raise their voices and speak up about what’s not happening for too many of America’s children. It is not right that we can say some kids can have a great education and some kids can have poor education, and think that all of us in this country are going to do well together. We’re seeing where ignorance can lead us right now in America. We’re seeing it.

Sheryl Lee Ralph in Abbott Elementary
Sheryl Lee Ralph in Abbott Elementary. Pic Credit. Gilles Mingasson/ABC

M&C: Please talk a little bit about your love for Broadway, which we share. Do you see yourself going back in the near future?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: This year we celebrate 40 years since Dreamgirls debuted on Broadway. And 40 years later, I came back to Broadway as a producer of Thoughts of a Colored Man. And it has been, this particular time, the end of last year was such an amazing time for me to really think about where things started and how they’re going. Because we did Dreamgirls at the Imperial Theater, which was literally across the street from the Golden Theater, which is where Thoughts of a Colored Man was running.

I felt this was just the most wonderful experience. I look forward to coming back to Broadway with a new production, have a couple of things in mind, but nothing has settled. But if I could convince Denzel to come back to Broadway, that would be an amazing thing.

M&C: What would you say to a young actress who’s watching you and Quinta and wants to know, it’s not an easy field, producing, writing, for anybody? What would you say to them about not giving up?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to know that in this industry you will get a very unhealthy portion of rejection every day, and you’ve got to be ready for that. If it’s too much for you, get another job, do something else. Because you will hear far more no’s than you will yesses.

But even in hearing that, if it’s for you, you will not be deterred. You will carry on. Because I have been too tall, too short, too black, and not black enough all in one day. And it never made me stop and think, maybe I should do something else. It just let me know that wasn’t for me. That door that didn’t open wasn’t the door for me. I would say to trust and believe that the door that is for you will open wide, and if you’re smart, you’ll walk right through it.

M&C: Why do you encourage my readers to watch Abbott Elementary?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Abbott Elementary is one of the few shows out there that the whole family can sit down, enjoy, watch, go away from it having learned something, and can engage in a conversation to talk about it. It is a show that has the kind of magic where you are going to laugh at some things you thought, wow, I never thought about that. And it’s going to make you think about it afterward. It’s a wonderful show. We have a great cast. I honestly believe that we probably have one of the best ensemble casts on TV, no exaggeration. And if you’re from Philadelphia, it is the perfect way to support Philadelphia’s own in Quinta Brunson.

Abbott Elementary can be seen on ABC on Tuesdays from 9-9:30 p.m. ET.

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