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From 'Dreamgirls' to 'Abbot Elementary,' Sheryl Lee Ralph isn't leaving the spotlight

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

She was the first to play the role of Deena Jones in the original production of "Dreamgirls" on Broadway...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMGIRLS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As The Dreams, singing) We're your dreamgirls. Boys, we'll make you happy.

SUMMERS: ...The second Black woman to win an Emmy for supporting actress in a comedy...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHERYL LEE RALPH: I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like. This is what striving looks like. And don't you ever, ever give up on you.

SUMMERS: ...And earlier this year, the third to perform "Lift Every Voice And Sing" at the Super Bowl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RALPH: (Singing) Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

SUMMERS: 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.

RALPH: 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.

SUMMERS: I spoke to Sheryl Lee Ralph about how she rediscovered her ability and where it's led her, starting with how it felt to perform at the Super Bowl live.

RALPH: 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.

SUMMERS: You know, I was a bit surprised to hear you talk about almost stepping away from the business in the early 2000s. I mean, I'm in my 30s. And I have to say, you were a primetime TV staple for people like me and my friends as Dee Mitchell, the mother to Brandy's character on "Moesha" for six seasons. So I'd love to know a bit more about what made you consider stepping out of the spotlight then.

RALPH: You know what? It's so - 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 "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, you know, the one that used to be. And I had that fateful run-in with the casting director who said, you know, 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.

SUMMERS: I want to talk now about the show "Abbott Elementary." You've won an Emmy for the role of longtime kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard. She is super pragmatic, very no-nonsense and a little cutting when she interacts with the younger teachers like Quentin Brunson's Janine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABBOTT ELEMENTARY")

RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) Janine, do not get your hopes up because Ava will find a way to bring them down.

QUINTA BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) I don't think that's fair. She's been doing the work. Maybe Ava has never risen to expectations because nobody believed in her.

RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) That's not it.

SUMMERS: I just have to say, she is a bit of a contrast to the optimism and the glowing positivity that you seem to exude everywhere you go. And respectfully, her wardrobe is also quite a far cry from that red carpet look and what you wore at the Super Bowl. So tell me, how do you channel your inner Barbara? How do you get into character?

RALPH: 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.

SUMMERS: I mean, "Abbott" resonates with just about anyone who's ever set foot inside a classroom. But there is also an undeniable Blackness in the show's humor, its themes and its casting. Was that sort of representation something that you were searching for before you got this role?

RALPH: 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 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.

SUMMERS: You know, you are someone who is now getting so much recognition for all of your talent at the later part of your life. And I'm just curious, how do you think about all of that?

RALPH: I love it. OK. I'm going to tell you this. Do you remember that movie the "Titanic"?

SUMMERS: Yeah.

RALPH: 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.

SUMMERS: Emmy Award-winning, Tony Award-nominated actor and singer Sheryl Lee Ralph. Her book, "Diva 2.0: 12 Life Lessons From Me To You," is out now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

RALPH: Thank you very much. And, you know, take a moment to celebrate you because you really matter. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMGIRLS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As The Dreams, singing) Dreamgirls will help you through the night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
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.