Special for Infobae of The New York Times.
LOS ANGELES — Sheryl Lee Ralph has a habit of starting to sing out of the blue.
The “Abbott Elementary” star is full of energy, often vacillating between channeling her inner Broadway diva (occasionally, she sings a line to prove a point) and her inner religious girl, emphasizing her words with that sing-song tone and screamer that many black preachers love to use. It is as if she is addressing an invisible congregation of 200 people.
And Reverend Ralph had some advice:
“You have to fight for it!” he said, punctuating each word. “Imagine you have a map. Ask yourself: ‘How did he get from point A to Z?’”
There was a dramatic pause (she seems to love them) before she explained what she meant: “You have to know exactly where you’re going so you can see your trajectory.”
It was a month before the Emmys, and Ralph had been nominated for his first major award in 40 years.
Of course, our first interview was put on hold, although she was already planning the second one after the Emmys.
He advanced: “And you know what I’m going to tell you?”
Ralph, 65, mentioned: “I was already a winner before the ceremony and I am a winner after it. I came to this place at this point in my life and everything always works out for me. So regardless of whether that trophy is in my hands or someone else’s, I’m still a winner. Also, if I lose this time, maybe it wasn’t for me, but it will be for me some other time.”
“And if I’m the winner, I’ll tell you, ‘I told you so.’ Everything always works out for me.”
climb that mountain
Ralph has had a steady job (unusual for a black woman in Hollywood) since graduating from Rutgers University in 1975.
He stated: “I have always felt present. It feels good”.
Out of college at age 19, Ralph went on tour with the United Service Organizations (USO), performing alongside Anneka di Lorenzo, Penthouse magazine’s “Pet of the Year” that year. At the end of the tour, Ralph flew back to Los Angeles on military aircraft before a scheduled transfer to a commercial flight that would take her back to New York City.
Ralph recalled: “I was told not to get off the plane. But of course I took my bag and got off that plane.”
She entered the terminal in Los Angeles, found a phone booth and called her father, who was waiting for her on the other side of the country.
His father implored him: “Get back on that plane!”
Undeterred, he replied, “Daddy, do we have any relatives in Los Angeles?”
I didn’t have a plan, but I did have a feeling: I was meant to be there.
Ralph related that his father was silent for a long and terrifying moment. When he finally broke the silence, he told her that he had recently spoken to a distant cousin whom he hadn’t been in contact with in years. Her name was Mabel, and hours later, Ralph was standing outside her apartment, waiting for Mabel to throw a key to her building door out the window.
That night, while checking her phone’s messaging service, she noticed several messages she hadn’t seen from Chris Kaiser, her former acting coach and associate producer on a movie starring Sidney Poitier, “Honorable Scoundrels.” He wanted her to audition. The next day, she was in front of Poitier at the Warner Bros. studio and afterward, she was offered a part in the film.
At the conclusion of filming, as he was leaving the set for the last time, Poitier approached Ralph and commented, “You are so wonderful, so talented. And I’m sorry that this industry doesn’t have more to offer you.”
More than a decade later, in a story that has been told more than once, he had a similar conversation with Robert De Niro on the set of the 1992 film People of Sunset Boulevard. In Ralph’s account, De Niro told him said: “’You deserve to be seen. But Hollywood isn’t looking for you. They’re not looking for the black girl. So the best thing you can do is climb that mountain and wave that red flag to let them know you’re here.
Ralph remembered these conversations as highlights of his career. He claimed, “All I needed to hear was that I’m good. Do you think I’m going to stop because maybe these people can’t see me? The industry just hadn’t realized how good I am.”
All you need to do is dream
Ralph said she has hazy memories of the year she was nominated for her first award. In 1981, after four years of acting workshops (and another USO tour), she starred as Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls,” the Broadway musical that made her a star. She was 24 years old.
The work environment was sometimes toxic: the show’s producers had pitted her against her co-star, Jennifer Holliday. AIDS was just beginning to sweep through the theater community, and Ralph’s earliest memory of the 1980s is the volume of deaths.
She was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical, and while she enjoyed the accolades, she realized she was wasting her talent. She recounted, “Once during ‘Dreamgirls,’ I realized things weren’t right for me because I was standing in front of the mirror and seeing a giant. But I was literally shrinking.”
During production, Holliday’s weight fluctuations were often the most talked about topic in the tabloids, but much of the cast felt pressure to be unrealistically thin. As Ralph continued to lose weight, producers began ordering food from his dressing room, hoping he would eat at least once a day.
After a show, she came out the back door of the theater and saw that her parents were waiting for her in a car. She was taken to a treatment center in Neversink, New York. She was there for two weeks. Nurses monitored her dietary intake and doctors encouraged her to find a “meditation” practice. Ralph stated, “I guess we didn’t know much about anorexia back then. But I knew I had absolutely no control over my life and what was going on around me.”
Ralph pointed out, “I remember thinking, ‘Hmmm, this is not going to be me again, this is not going to be me again.’ Everyone else was telling me what to do and how to be and how to act, so now I fiercely defend being in charge of my life. Because that brought me down.”
Last week, when Ralph won her first major award, the Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy, she started singing, singing Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species.” She didn’t have a speech planned. She stated, “That was how I felt. I wanted people to know: I am a woman. I’m an artist. I’m here. I have been here. This woman they’re honoring tonight is the woman I’ve been becoming my entire career.”
She was also excited to talk about her “daughters”: Issa Rae, Cynthia Erivo, Lena Waithe, Gabrielle Union and, of course, Quinta Brunson (Black women who have undoubtedly benefited from the doors that Ralph’s presence has opened). in the industry for them). She concluded: “It has been my job to resist for them.”