From 'Dreamgirls' to 'Abbott Elementary,' Sheryl Lee Ralph forged her own path
Veteran actor Sheryl Lee Ralph has been nominated for an Emmy for her role as a tough but loving kindergarten teacher on the comedy series Abbott Elementary. With just a glance, Mrs. Barbara Howard can get an unruly class to quietly sit down or to line up single file — and Ralph is no slouch at classroom management either.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. My guest, Sheryl Lee Ralph, co-stars in the ABC comedy series "Abbott Elementary." Tonight, Ralph will find out if she won an Emmy. She's nominated for best supporting actress for her performance in the series. It's one of several nominations for the series including outstanding comedy series. The second season premieres Sept. 21st and will begin streaming on Hulu the following day.
"Abbott Elementary" is about the teachers in an under-resourced, majority-Black elementary school in Philadelphia. The creator of the series, Quinta Brunson, plays a new idealistic teacher who's still a little clueless. Ralph's character has been teaching for 30 years and is the kind of teacher who, with a glance, can get an unruly class to sit down or quietly line up single file. Here's how the character describes herself.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABBOTT ELEMENTARY")
SHERYL LEE RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) I'm Barbara Howard, woman of God. I do my work. I go home. I get my nails done every week. And I love teaching.
GROSS: The second season of "Abbott Elementary" premieres Sept. 21st on ABC and will begin streaming on Hulu the following day. Sheryl Lee Ralph got her first big break in the 1977 Sidney Poitier film, "A Piece Of The Action." An even bigger break came in 1981 when she starred in the hit Broadway musical "Dreamgirls." She played Deena Jones, a singer who's part of a trio of Black women called the Dreams. The musical was loosely based on the rise of the '60s girl groups like the Supremes and the Shirelles.
After the success of "Dreamgirls," Ralph moved to LA but found there were few roles available to Black actors. But she kept pushing to find a place for herself. She won an Independent Spirit Award for her performance in Charles Burnett's 1990 film, "To Sleep With Anger." From 1996 to 2001, she played Brandy's stepmother in the popular sitcom "Moesha."
Here's another clip from "Abbott Elementary." Quinta Brunson's character, Janine, the new teacher, needs a new rug for the classroom. One of her students peed on the old rug because the toilet was broken. There's no money. But she thinks the principal, Ava, will help her get a rug. Janine asks for advice from Sheryl Lee Ralph's character, Barbara Howard.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABBOTT ELEMENTARY")
QUINTA BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) I wanted to get your expert, classy eye on my rug-request email to Ava.
RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) Janine, we are not getting new rugs. We are not getting anything.
BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) Barbara, have some faith. Ava literally said she'll get us whatever we need.
RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) Janine, I have been working in the Philadelphia school district for 20 years, and Ava is just the latest in a long line of people who do absolutely nothing. Just do your job.
BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) This is me doing my job. I think the job means trying to make things better.
RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) And I think the job is working with what you've got so you don't get let down.
GROSS: Sheryl Lee Ralph, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your Emmy nomination. And I love your character. She's strict, but all the kids respect her because they know she cares and that she's cared enough to stay and never give up on them and that they're safe in her classroom. She respects them. They respect her. I feel like I know you.
RALPH: Oh, thank you. And I love this show, so thank you for having me as a guest.
GROSS: Did you draw from teachers or from other women that you knew to base your character on?
RALPH: Oh, absolutely. You know, I'm surrounded by educators. You know, my dad - my Auntie Carolyn would be the closest one. You know, she was a blue-ribbon educator, the kind that was the teacher-turned principal in a very challenged urban school - Washington, D.C., to be perfectly clear. And it was Bunker Hill, and she turned that school around by engaging the students, making them a part of what was happening within the walls of that school. And it just changed the whole trajectory for everybody while she was there. So she's definitely a part of Barbara Howard.
GROSS: What did you learn from her about how to gain the respect of students or of younger people?
RALPH: You know something? I think it's about letting them know that boundaries are there for a reason - and don't make me have to say this three times. I understand if I might have to say it twice, but do not let me have to say it three times. Sometimes, when you talk to them like that, they actually get it. In fact, on set, everybody is always amazed at why the students in my class are always the quietest, the best, and the most engaged. And I just talk to them that way, and we talk with each other, and my set is always ready to go.
GROSS: There's a scene in the final episode of the first season of "Abbott Elementary" where your character's on a class trip with your students and you want to show them your favorite animal in the zoo, a lizard who arrived at the zoo the same year you started teaching. And you find out that the lizard isn't there, that the lizard has been retired and is now at an animal shelter - an animal retreat, I should say, because...
GROSS: ...The zoo became too much for him. And it makes you think - it makes your character think that maybe that's a message and it's time for you to retire from teaching. Now, that's Barbara Howard, the character. But you, Sheryl Lee Ralph, the real person, you, on the other hand, are having a great moment in your mid-60s. You're nominated for an Emmy. You co-star on a hit TV series that, you know, a lot of people watch. What does it mean to you to have that Emmy nomination now? 'Cause my understanding is you were kind of - you were considering giving up acting 15 years ago.
RALPH: Yeah. About 15 years ago, things weren't happening the way they - I thought they might. And I was just figuring, you know, hey, I've now married to, you know, Senator Vincent Hughes in Philadelphia. Maybe I'll move to Philly and do a small talk show or something. And that'll be that. And first of all, my husband looked at me like I was crazy. He was like, are you kidding me? First of all, everybody works in this family, and you've got a lot of work to do.
And then, I just happened to have a run-in with a casting director who was dropping her daughter off at the same school my daughter attended. And she said, what are you doing? And I said, well, actually, you know, I'm not doing too much. And she basically stopped in her tracks and said, that must be 'cause you must not want to do too much, or you've forgotten who you are. And I was like, wow. Wow, what a perfect moment. And it - I really took that moment to reexamine my career, reexamine who was representing me, and get out there and get better representation - which I did - with my current manager, Lisa Wright. And what she was able to - with the trajectory that she was able to put me on is exactly where I am, exactly where she told me I deserve to be.
GROSS: In the years before and after "Dreamgirls," you couldn't get many roles because you're Black and because some casting directors wouldn't cast a Black woman and others thought you were too light or too dark for the role. And you have some pretty great stories about that. I'm going to ask you to tell one of them. And I know you've told it before, but it's too good not to tell on our show. This is the Tom Cruise story?
RALPH: Oh, my goodness. I literally came out to California after doing "Dreamgirls." You know, I was returning to a city that I absolutely loved, and I was ready to work. I had a great pedigree - Tony nomination, great press. Everything was wonderful. And this big-time studio casting director looked at me and said, everybody knows you're a beautiful, talented Black girl. But what do I do with a beautiful, talented Black girl? Do I put you in a movie with Tom Cruise? Does he kiss you? Who goes to see that movie?
And I remember, at first, being shocked that he was literally just saying this out loud to me to my face. And I exited that meeting, and I exhaled, standing on the steps of that amazing studio. And I re-thought what he said to me. He said, everybody knows that I'm, one, beautiful, two, talented, three, Black girl. And everybody knows it. Right. So it was up to me to make sure that I was, once again, represented well so that I could move forward in an industry that was telling me from the very start, we're not looking for you. We don't know what to do with you, but you deserve something. We just don't have it for you.
GROSS: I like the way you kind of turned that around and said, like, well, everybody knows you're beautiful. Everybody knows you're talented. Is that what you tried to keep from what you were told, as opposed to there's no place for you? (Laughter) Yeah.
RALPH: It's what I tried to keep, it's what I kept.
RALPH: It's what I kept. It's what encouraged me to move forward, the fact that he said to me that everybody knew it. Everybody knew it.
GROSS: Your first big break was given to you by Sidney Poitier, who directed and starred with Bill Cosby in the film "A Piece Of The Action." I think this was 1977.
GROSS: And you were cast as a teenager in juvie.
GROSS: So what did you learn working with Sidney Poitier as the star of the film and as the director of the film, because he was in both roles?
RALPH: And he was producer of the film. I learned an awful lot. One, when you look at all the people that he cast in the show, these were all friends and associates of his that he chose to work with, you know, the people who co-produced with him, the people that acted, you know, the main stars - James Earl Jones, Denise Nicholas, Bill Cosby. These were all people that knew each other, which makes for, at times, you know, a seamless production when you cast people that you know in some way and can work well with, you know? It can keep you on time, on task and on budget. But as I left that set, he gave me this little - this makeup box that had everything in it for me to be able to, you know, continue to learn how to do my makeup and all the things that we might need as young actors of color, because he said, they're not prepared for you. They're not ready for you. So you're going to have to be ready yourself, hence me always saying, I stay ready...
RALPH: ...Because he really, really taught me that I had to stay ready because they weren't going to do the job for me.
GROSS: Let's talk about "Dreamgirls." Did you love the girl groups when you were growing up, groups like the Supremes, the Shirelles, the Chiffons?
RALPH: I mean, how could I not love a good girl group? And they just came - they just kept coming at me. I loved the Supremes. I loved the 5th Dimension. I loved the Three Degrees. Oh, my God - all different shades and beauties of Black women just singing in a voice that I could represent and acknowledge. And I loved it. I loved their clothes. I loved their hair. I loved everything about them.
GROSS: How did hair and costumes help you get into character for "Dreamgirls"?
RALPH: Oh, my goodness. First of all, it was Ted. I think it was Ted Azar. And Ted Azar introduced us to the most beautiful lace front wigs ever created, ever designed for the stage. And we had so many wig and costume changes - the bugle beads. The only disaster was if a string of bugle beads...
RALPH: ...Were to fall off onstage. Oh, my God. The crunching, the clashing that could be heard...
RALPH: ...From your shoes on those glass beads, I mean, it was something else. And having the stamina to wear and carry a dress that weighed upwards of 30 pounds...
GROSS: Oh, that much?
RALPH: Oh, my God. These were full glass-beaded dresses. These were not the plastic beads of today. These were glass beads, hand-strung glass beads. And they were quite spectacular costumes.
GROSS: You're basically wearing a set of wine glasses (laughter).
RALPH: Yeah. You're wearing a big ol' set of wine glasses.
RALPH: And they're heavy once you string them all together.
GROSS: Well, let's hear the signature song of the girl group the Dreams. And this is the song "Dreamgirls." And you are, of course, singing lead on this, along with Jennifer Holliday and Loretta Devine as part of the trio.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMGIRLS")
SHERYL LEE RALPH, JENNIFER HOLLIDAY AND LORETTA DEVINE: Ladies and gentlemen, the Crystal Room is proud to present the club debut of America's new recording stars, the Dreams.
(As the Dreams, singing) Every man has his own special dream. And your dream's just about to come true. Life's not as bad as it may seem if you open your eyes to what's in front of you. We're your dream girls. Boys, we'll make you happy. Yeah, we're your dream girls. Boys, we'll always care. We're your dream girls. Dream girls will never leave you, no, no. And all you've got to do is dream, baby, we'll be there. Dream. Dremgirls will help you through the night. Dream. Dream girls will make you feel all right. Dream girls keep you dreaming your whole life through. Yeah, dream girls can make your dreams come true. We're your dream girls. Boys...
GROSS: That's from the original cast recording of "Dreamgirls." This is actually from the 25th anniversary version of that. And so we heard from my guest, Sheryl Lee Ralph, singing lead with Jennifer Holliday and Loretta Devine. Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sheryl Lee Ralph, one of the stars of the comedy series "Abbott Elementary." It begins again with its second season September 21 and the day after starts streaming on Hulu. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLARK TERRY AND RED MITCHELL'S "SWINGIN' THE BLUES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sheryl Lee Ralph, one of the stars of "Abbott Elementary." She's also known for her starring role in the original Broadway cast of "Dreamgirls" and for playing the stepmother on the series "Moesha."
Did you think of yourself as a singer when you were cast in "Dreamgirls"? And had you hoped to be in musicals?
RALPH: You know what? I really considered myself an actor first because I was nowhere near the singer that Loretta Devine was, that Debbie Burrell was, that any one of the Jennifers that came through the show - you know, Jennifer Holliday, my God, who ended up being the Effie. I mean, those were singers. They were singers first, then actors. I would say I was an actor first, then singer. And as an actor, I created the voice of Deena Jones, who is not the voice of Sheryl Lee Ralph.
GROSS: What's the difference?
RALPH: The voice of Deena Jones - it's a much smaller voice. It's a tiny voice, but it can sing the notes as they are written, can hold one note. You won't see a whole lot of riffing in her voice. She's the kind of voice that you might hear within the Supremes or the Three Degrees, you know, or the "California Soul" 5th Dimension, which is very different from what you would hear from an Aretha Franklin or the Marvelettes or any of the other, you know, groups of that ilk. It's a different voice, but it's one that has made its mark in music history. So that's how I looked at myself. But I love it and love doing musicals.
GROSS: So you were 24 when "Dreamgirls" became a Broadway hit. One of the things that happened during the run is that you developed an eating disorder. You basically stopped eating. You kept getting smaller and smaller while, you say, Jennifer Holliday, reacting to stress, kept eating more and gaining weight. What was causing you such distress that led to anorexia?
RALPH: I think it was the fact that I started to feel like I was invisible. I started to feel like I was not really seen. You know, as an actor, you know, you create a full character. And then, there are people who want to say, well, you can't sing. And it's like it's not that I can't sing, it's that my character's not supposed to sing, you know, with the same sort of pain and feeling and power of Effie.
GROSS: Your character's supposed to be more pop.
RALPH: Yes, I'm more pop. And I'm more the cheerleader with the velvet hammer. You know, let's look beautiful. Let's put on our gowns. Let's go out there and entertain the people. None of our pain needs to be shared with our audience. You know, it's for us to just be fabulous and beautiful, you know, which in some ways is Sheryl, too, you know? My pain is not for the audience; my pain is for myself. And I think what happens when you develop things like anorexia, which we did not know anything about at that time, it's because you feel out of control. You feel you cannot control it, any - what's going on around you. But you can control yourself. And what I could control was my body and what I ate. And so I didn't eat.
GROSS: You talked about feeling like you weren't being seen. I mean, you were literally being seen by, you know, big audiences every night. But also, at the same time, it sounds like Michael Bennett, who was directing the show, kept playing you and Jennifer Holliday against each other as rivals, including as rivals for his attention, mirroring what was happening in the show between your two characters. Are you bothered by the idea of making people feel bad about each other in real life so that they'll feel bad about each other in the film? I mean, do you feel like you should be...
RALPH: How could I not be?
GROSS: Yeah, I mean, don't you feel like you should be respected as an actor who can get there without, you know, somebody feeling like they have to manipulate you into getting the performance that they want?
RALPH: Listen, I would have liked it to have been that way, but obviously, he didn't feel that. And he pitted the two of us against each other, and it was horrible. It didn't feel good. It hurt. And it messed with my head because I couldn't understand. Hey, in the words of the great prophet of the future, can't we all just get along?
RALPH: And then, he did things - like, on opening night, she got diamond earrings from Tiffany's, and I got a belt buckle.
GROSS: Well, that's a message.
RALPH: Yeah, it's a big message. I got a brass belt buckle.
GROSS: Brass. OK.
GROSS: Do you ever listen to the cast recording? Do you ever go back and revisit that?
RALPH: Yeah. It's great to work out to. It's a great workout...
GROSS: All right. Well, let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sheryl Lee Ralph. And she's one of the stars of the comedy series "Abbott Elementary," which begins its second season Sept. 21st on ABC. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "SUMAYRA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Sheryl Lee Ralph, who co-stars in the hit comedy series "Abbott Elementary." She plays Barbara Howard, one of the teachers in the elementary school. Tonight, she'll find out if she's won an Emmy for her performance. The series is nominated for several awards including outstanding comedy series. The new season starts Sept. 21st on ABC and starts streaming on Hulu the following day.
Ralph got her first movie role in the film "A Piece Of The Action," which Sidney Poitier directed and starred in. She went on to star in the original cast of the hit Broadway show "Dreamgirls." In the series "Moesha" starring Brandy, she played Moesha's stepmother.
You know, "Dreamgirls," when you were on Broadway, it had a really big gay following. Michael Bennett, the director, was gay, but he was still in the closet when you were working in the show. I think the choreographer was gay 'cause the choreographer for that show was somebody else, right? Or did Bennett choreograph it, too?
RALPH: The choreographer was Michael Peters. Michael Bennett and Bob Avian basically choreographed together. But a lot of it was Michael Peters, who went on to choreograph Michael Jackson in his whole "Thriller" videos and "Bad." You know, he was quite a prolific choreographer in his day before he passed of AIDS. In fact, all of them basically died of AIDS.
GROSS: So you had a lot of friends who were getting AIDS who were dying. What impact did it have on you to be losing so many friends and watching them suffer and knowing that there was more to come?
RALPH: It really was a shock to my humanity. It was a shock to the little church girl in me that people could be suffering, people could be dying, and human beings found it easy to not care, not love. You know, you would have families just dump their dying children off on church stair steps like they were bags of used clothing for a rummage sale. And it was OK. You know, great evangelists and Christians were OK with getting on TV and saying the most awful things about human beings ever just because. And to me, it was an assault to my humanity.
And that's why I got involved in simply daring to care. And I was shocked that I was literally being challenged about caring for other human beings. You know, I'll never forget, you know, Michael Bennett telling me that, you know, a star doesn't get involved in these things. Just shut up, and be beautiful. That's all you have to do because nobody's going to like you for this other stuff.
GROSS: Why do you think Michael Bennett said that to you? Do you think he didn't want you to take a public stand, that it might hurt the show in some way? Or was he just bitter about how AIDS was being ignored?
RALPH: You know, it was an interesting time during the AIDS epidemic where even those who were infected did not want people to draw any more attention to them or what was going on. And when he took ill and was very, very ill and I came in to say goodbye, I remember him just looking at me, and he just said, oh, it's you. And I think that was his way of saying, well, you were right. I didn't know it would be me, but, of course, here you are. And that was that.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your background. Your mother is from Jamaica. Her aunt sponsored her to come to America where your mother hoped to become a nurse. She met your father when they were both working at a hospital. And he was a graduate student at NYU. He became a teacher - your mother, a designer. In fact, she designed what you describe in your memoir as a Kareeba suit, a Jamaican version of a Western-style suit. Can you just - I don't - I'm not sure if I've ever seen that. Or if I did, I didn't know what it was called. So can you tell us something about that and why she felt she needed an alternative?
RALPH: My mother was - she told me that she was so tired of seeing men from the Caribbean and other hot countries sweat when they went to court, sweat when they saw the queen, just sweat. And she wanted to create something that a man from the islands, from a hot nation, like any of the African countries, like, you know, Cuba, all of those places - that these men could put on this suit and feel dressed. This would be a new national dress in its time for Jamaica called a Kareeba, K-A-R-E-E-B-A. And so many national figures - you know, African figures, even Castro himself - they all wore the Kareeba.
And for years, men in Jamaica ditched the shirt and tie. They wore these linen or summer-weight gabardine suits to court, to public functions, to formal functions. They changed, you know, with the type of fabrics that were used - the ascots that were worn instead of a tie. And it was just quite a memorable thing. And one day on social media, I saw the whole history of my mother's work come up. And I was so proud because I remember opening up the LA Times, and above the fold was the story about - the Kareeba in Jamaica changes men's dress throughout the islands. And that's exactly what it did.
GROSS: Was the jacket shaped like a suit jacket? Or was it shaped differently?
RALPH: It buttoned further up than a regular suit jacket, and it opened up to flat lapels. And men would sometimes wear it open. Or if they were dressing it up, they would wear an ascot as a more formal presentation of the suit. They were short-sleeved as well as long-sleeved.
GROSS: Since your mother was a fashion designer, did clothing mean a lot to you when you were coming of age? And are you very picky about what your characters wear 'cause you know what clothes signify?
RALPH: Always, always. So it was always important for me to be dressed appropriately. More than that, it was important for my mother - remember I'm an immigrant child - to be dressed appropriately so that they see - so that I am valued as a human being and not just, you know, ignored, in her mind.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sheryl Lee Ralph, one of the stars of the comedy series "Abbott Elementary." It begins again with its second season Sept. 21st, and the day after, it starts streaming on Hulu. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARETHA FRANKLIN SONG, "TRY MATTY'S")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sheryl Lee Ralph, one of the stars of "Abbott Elementary." She's also known for her starring role in the original Broadway cast of "Dreamgirls" and for playing the stepmother on the series "Moesha."
So I want to ask you about an incident in your family. And I'm not sure how old you were at the time or if you were even alive at the time. I think you were. But your grandfather was shot to death during a home invasion. Would you briefly tell the story and where - like, where you were at the time?
RALPH: I was 16 years old. I was a freshman at Rutgers. And my dad made a call, you know? You had payphones at the end of the hall. And he called me. And I answered it. And he said, stay where you are. I'll be right there. And I remember going out front and my dad pulling up and telling me that my grandfather had been killed. And I really just could not believe that here it was, once again, one of the best, best times in my life, and that somebody had killed my grandfather, who was, like - you know, my grandfather was, really, a great man in that he was a great sportsman. He was a great mechanic. He was a great man of the church. He was part of that great migration, you know, where people - Black folks in the South migrated North. And because he could drive and fix his car, he went off solo. And he, you know, went to Detroit and decided, you know, Detroit was not it. He went to - through Pennsylvania. And he said, no.
And he went up to Connecticut. And there were big factories up there opening. And they needed workers. And he went back, and several families came up with him. I think they were the Baskervilles (ph), the Ralphs. There were about three other families. And all of them, you know, together came up to Connecticut. And he was a big man in his church - quiet, strong spirit. He was an athlete, you know? There was a tennis court up - I forget the name of the park there at Waterbury. But, you know, he did lessons. And, oh, my God, he used to always say that one day, when young Black children are playing tennis, the sport will achieve true greatness, you know? He used to always speak of - and I'm forgetting the great athlete's name, when they finally let her play. But he would have loved to have seen Venus and Serena because he knew they were coming.
He played golf. And he would caddy so that he could play on the golf courses. And, you know, there was a time when people would do awful things, you know, to caddies, like put - you know, defecate in the hole. And when they went to pick up the balls, you know - they did terrible things to them. But he was also a man of faith. And he said, you know, when young Black men and women start playing this game, it will achieve greatness. And I always thought, my God, if he could have just seen Tiger Woods, because he knew Tiger Woods was going to be - was going to, you know, be birthed and change the game. But when he was killed, it hurt because he had put so much time in developing sports programs for young kids because he believed an idle mind is a devil's workshop. And the devil's workshop killed him.
GROSS: Because it was one of the students from one of those after school programs that...
GROSS: ...Tried to rob the house, thinking that your grandparents wouldn't be home. Your grandmother chased after the home invaders with a kitchen knife. And one of them turned around and shot your grandfather pointblank.
RALPH: They shot my grandfather in the chest. And they shot her in her face. The bullet went through her face. She was always a beautiful woman. And I think that everything changed for her because that was really just a terrible, terrible time. I think she was scarred spiritually. She was scarred mentally. She was scarred, because she told me that she screamed and held my grandfather. And all she could feel was the blood of life just leaking out of him. And it was as if a veil had fell over the house and no one could hear. And she was alone. And he died. And it was horrible, just horrible, horrible, horrible.
But years later, as fate would have it, you know, we were exiting my grandmother's funeral. And as we exited the place, a young, married - young couple coming in to get married - and you could tell they didn't have a whole lot of money. It wasn't, like, a big wedding, but they were happy. And behind them was, like, just a straggly, sort of broken man. And then we got into the limo. And it was very much like a bad movie, where the driver is like, y'all know who that was? No, we don't know who that was. You don't know who that man was that was walking in behind them? No, we don't know who that is. Can we just get to the cemetery? Oh, well, I hate to tell you, but that was who killed your grandfather. And I was just like, God, why are you doing this to me, God? Why are you doing this to me now? And it was just a horrible day, a horrible time to reflect. But, you know, sometimes you just have to take these bad moments and move forward with all of them, because things like that can either kill you or they can make you stronger and you move forward.
GROSS: Were you scarred by those shootings?
RALPH: I think there's no way you can't be scarred by things like gun violence and all of that. I don't think there's any way you can't be scarred, you know? I talk about gun violence now and what happened to my grandfather, what happened to my son.
GROSS: I'm sorry. What happened to your son?
RALPH: My son graduated from Drexel, and one of those parties before graduation - you know, too much drinking, ended up in the wrong neighborhood. And somebody used him for target practice, shot him three times through his leg, through his thigh. And the third one missed his head. And he missed the kill shot. And one day, I was talking with Trayvon Martin's mom, and we were talking about gun violence. And she looked at me, and she said, I wish my son was still alive. And I was just so sad at that moment 'cause, you know, you can't help but be scarred by these things. But I look at my son every day, and I know what a miracle is 'cause my son's alive. And by the grace of God, that bullet - he carries a scar on his forehead. But he still has his leg, and he's alive.
GROSS: Did he have a full recovery?
RALPH: He has had a full recovery. He remembers nothing about that day, nothing about that day or that night other than getting into a cab. That's all he remembers.
GROSS: Does that strike you as a blessing that that's all he remembers?
RALPH: Absolutely, because they wanted me to see the video. And all I could hear was my son with a wailing sound and trying to move. And somebody picked my son up off of the street in Philadelphia and took him to the hospital. And I just, like - I never want to see anything more after I heard what he sounded like. And every year, I want to thank the person, the cabbie, who picked him up because it would have been so easy for that cab driver to leave my son on the street. And he might have died.
GROSS: Did you ever get a chance to thank him in person?
RALPH: My children did. I did not. But I did get to thank the police officer because, you know, if you ever need a good police officer, it's a good thing to find. Bad ones are a whole 'nother (ph) thing. But the good ones, it's a wonderful thing to be able to have at your service.
GROSS: Wow, you have to be strong to deal with that.
RALPH: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: I'm sorry. Forgive me. I didn't realize that that had happened, and I'm just processing that.
RALPH: Yeah, it's hard to process.
RALPH: It's very hard to process. It's very difficult. You know, sometimes, I just think about it, how I could have lost my child.
GROSS: Who told you what happened? How did you find out?
RALPH: (Laughter). My daughter called me one day. I was making up the bed with my husband. We were there in Philly. I just happened to be in Philadelphia because we were preparing, you know, for parties, for graduation and all of that while I'm working at the same time. And my daughter says, Mommy, Etienne's been shot. I remember I just felt something hot on my legs. And I realized that I was just peeing on myself. And I threw the phone to my husband, and we went - we got him. We - he was at the hospital. No, he was at friends because he didn't want to tell us. You know, they - kids always make that mistake. Call your parents first especially if your stepdad is the senator.
RALPH: And, oh, my God. And we got him. And he wasn't getting better, and he was moaning in pain. And my husband went downstairs, and he said, get dressed. We're taking him back to the hospital now. When we got to the hospital, the emergency room, the emergency room doctor was very attentive, and he said, where was he before this? 'Cause he should have never left the hospital. And my husband said, he was right here. You all let him out last night. And I think about that often. I think, did no one look at his insurance card that says the state of Pennsylvania's? Or did they just look at him - Friday night, Black man, Philadelphia, shot nobody.
GROSS: Oh, a horrible story.
RALPH: Yep. And it really happened. Yeah.
GROSS: Just take a moment.
RALPH: It's the first time I really told that whole story like that. And I think sometimes when these horrible things happen, you have to compartmentalize them. But if you get stuck in them, you can just be stuck. You can really, really just be stuck. And I just couldn't be stuck, you know?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sheryl Lee Ralph. And tonight, she'll actually find out if she won an Emmy for her role in the ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary." This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sheryl Lee Ralph, one of the stars of "Abbott Elementary." She's also known for her starring role in the original Broadway cast of "Dreamgirls" and for playing the stepmother on the series "Moesha." She's had many other roles as well. "Abbott Elementary" returns for Season 2 September 21 on ABC and starts streaming on Hulu the day after.
You describe yourself as having grown up the obedient child, the child that so believed your parents could see you by radar, that if your mother told you to be home before dark and you weren't, that she was going to be able to find out exactly where you were. And that you felt your parents had superpowers, so you listened to them, and you were a good girl. But you also learned how to push back. You learned how to talk back. You learned how to turn down roles you didn't like, like turning down prostitute roles. So...
RALPH: That's my father.
GROSS: That's your father?
RALPH: That's my dad.
GROSS: The say no was - the say no and stand up and resist was your father and the be a good girl was your mother?
RALPH: Oh, absolutely. You know what? Not quite. My - I would say that my mother, as an immigrant, she wanted me to be able to be ready for whatever was going to be thrown at me. And to understand that when people - you know, as a child of the 60s, when people were being ugly towards you, it was because they were ugly inside. It was because they were ignorant inside, that they could not see your value, that they were blinded by their isms. And it was up to you to make them see clearer, you know, that you had great power in your own personal actions. And so be careful about what it is you choose to do or not to do. Now, usually, my mother wanted me to choose to do what she wanted me to do.
RALPH: My father - (laughter). My father wanted to encourage me, to understand that I came into this life with my mother, but I would leave this life alone. So I better be happy with the choices that I made. And that's how it happened.
GROSS: Oh, that's so interestingly put. I have never heard anybody say that quite. Yeah, I like that. So as we record this, and as most of our listeners are hearing this, you don't yet know if you won the Emmy Award for your supporting role in "Abbott Elementary." You will find out tonight. So what are you going to wear? Because your mother was a fashion designer, and clothes have been important to you. You know, clothes say a lot about the person. What are you going to wear, and what are you going to think about when the envelope is opened and the names are called?
RALPH: Listen, I have got to tell you this. I did not know what I was wearing up until last week. You know, you think that it's going to be - you know, designers will call and this, that and the other. That was not my experience, and I was traumatized. So, OK, I've just tried on my gown. How about that?
GROSS: It fits, I hope.
RALPH: It's beautiful, but, I mean, we're just getting to know each other. I wish we had had more time, but we're just getting to know each other. It'll be beautiful. I don't want to give it away. But I do want to say this - whether I get that trophy in my hand or not, I already feel like a winner. I already feel like I have won. The love that has been shown to me, showered on me, the flowers that have been given to me, literally and figuratively, I feel like a winner. And forever after this, I will always be Tony-nominated, Emmy-nominated Sheryl Lee Ralph. Oh, my God. I feel so good and so happy and so excited.
GROSS: I wish you good luck. And I also hope that your gown does not weigh 30 pounds with glass bugle beads...
GROSS: ...Like the gowns you had to wear when you starred in "Dreamgirls" that were so heavy.
RALPH: So heavy. And this one - in this one, I hope to feel the incredible lightness of being...
RALPH: ...In that place, at that time and enjoying every moment of it.
GROSS: It has been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming on our show.
RALPH: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Sheryl Lee Ralph co-stars in the comedy series "Abbott Elementary" and is nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the series. As I record this, we don't yet know if she's won at tonight's ceremony. Season 2 of "Abbott Elementary" begins Wednesday, September 21 on ABC, and will begin streaming on Hulu the following day. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how lawyers from one giant law firm, Jones Day, became part of the Trump administration, helping shape the agenda and move the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts to the right. My guest will be David Enrich, author of the new book "Servants Of The Damned: Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump And The Corruption Of Justice." I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.