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Sheryl Lee Ralph explains why she almost left showbiz — and what kept her going

Sheryl Lee Ralph performs "Lift Every Voice and Sing" ahead of Super Bowl LVII.
Angela Weiss
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AFP via Getty Images
Sheryl Lee Ralph performs "Lift Every Voice and Sing" ahead of Super Bowl LVII.

She was the first to play the role of Deena Jones in the original production of Dreamgirls on Broadway; the second Black woman to win an Emmy for supporting actress in a comedy; and most recently, the third to perform "Lift Every Voice And Sing" at the Super Bowl.

So, it's kind of hard to imagine that about 15 years ago, actor and singer Sheryl Lee Ralph had considered walking away from show business. Opportunities had seemed to dry up. She was focusing on her family life.

But then she tells the story about a chance run-in with a casting director who told her to get back in the game and remember who she is.

"You know, the reason I tell people, you've got to believe in yourself, is for that time, I stopped believing in me. I stopped believing in my ability," she told NPR's Juana Summers.

Ralph spoke about how she rediscovered her ability, what playing Barbara Howard in Abbott Elementary means to her, and how she thinks about the success that has followed.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On performing at the Super Bowl

Oh, my God. First of all, it's like being in the Colosseum. This is like being in the middle of this massive gathering of human beings and just them, the 70,000 of them in that one space, there's almost a deafening din, you know, that sound. And I got up there and sang my song. And I loved the moment. I loved the moment.

Sheryl Lee Ralph performs "Lift Every Voice and Sing" ahead of Super Bowl LVII.
Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Sheryl Lee Ralph performs "Lift Every Voice and Sing" ahead of Super Bowl LVII.

On what made her consider stepping away from show business in the early 2000s

You know what, it was so strange. I had gone through a divorce, and I was definitely going through that, and my children, you know — you want to keep your children stable. And for some reason, after [the TV show] Moesha, things just kind of slowed down. And I thought, well, you know, maybe this is where I quit. And, you know, I'll be that person, the one that used to be. And I had that fateful run-in with the casting director who said, "You've obviously forgotten who you are." And I was, really, I was like, wow. Wow. But the moment I doubled down and started to believe in myself and dreamed bigger dreams for myself and put in the work towards making those things happen, wow, everything is very different, very different.

Ralph as Barbara Howard in <em>Abbott Elementary</em>.
Gilles Mingasson / ABC
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ABC
Ralph as Barbara Howard in Abbott Elementary.

On how she channels her no-nonsense character of Barbara Howard in Abbott Elementary

OK. I'll tell you this because this is true. Every time a character and I connect, their voice and demeanor come right off the pages and into me. And sometimes when I look at the screen and I see Barbara Howard, I'm like, look at that woman — because she's certainly not me. You know, I look at that wig. I look at the sweater sets. Oh, my God. Sometimes my head swirls within the things that she chooses to wear. I mean, Barbara Howard and her comfortable shoes, oh, my God. It's funny to me. But I love her so much. And you got to give the character the respect that they deserve because they will demand it from you. And she's a very demanding character.

On the Blackness in the show's humor, and whether that was something Ralph was searching for before she took the role

You know, something for me, I come from a time when I was first starting out where I was told by a producer, literally, I was fired from the job for not being Black enough. And I could not understand what he meant by that statement. I just wasn't Black enough. But to now have a young woman in [Abbott Elementary creator] Quinta Brunson look at me and say, "Ms. Ralph, they're sleeping on your talent, but I'm not," and I am exactly what they needed just the way I am, just the artist that I am, just the woman that I am — it is all what is needed.

Sheryl Lee Ralph won the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series award for <em>Abbott Elementary</em> at the 2022 Emmys
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Sheryl Lee Ralph won the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series award for Abbott Elementary at the 2022 Emmys

On how she thinks about the recognition she is getting in the later part of her life

I love it. OK. I'm going to tell you this. Do you remember that movie, Titanic? At the beginning of the movie, there is this very old woman telling a story. That woman was an actress. She hung in there, and she got her break at 90 years old. I loved that story. So for me to be here in my 60s, making it — and I mean really making it — I'm like, I don't know what is going on right now, but thank you, God. I receive it. But I realize it is definitely not just for me. It is for others to know if I can do it, you can do it. I sometimes look at people, and I'm like, "Oh, my God. You have no idea the possibilities of your own life." I mean, I've had to sit with people sometimes and wake them up to who they are, just like that casting director woke me up to who I am. Sometimes you just got to know you are enough. Now, carry on with that. You are enough, yes.


Sheryl Lee Ralph's new book, "Diva 2.0: 12 Life Lessons From Me To You," is out March 14.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]