In 1976, Sheryl Lee Ralph graduated from Rutgers University as the youngest woman ever to earn a bachelor’s from the institution. Within five years, she had made history as the original Deena Jones in the original Broadway production of “Dreamgirls,” earning herself both a Drama Desk and Tony Award nomination.
Pioneer From the Beginning
Throughout the years, the New York native (by way of Jamaica) has maintained her trailblazing spirit and most recently made history as the second Black woman to earn an Emmy Award as “Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series” for her role as Barbara Howard in “Abbott Elementary.”
Ralph’s first movie gig was in 1977’s “A Piece of the Action” opposite Sidney Poitier. It took 11 years before she \would be cast for her next role. The triple threat said it had little to do with her talent but more to do with her race.
In a 2022 interview with People magazine, she reflected on her career and shared how difficult it was for her in the early days, saying, “People’s thinking was not very inclusive.”
“[I] had a memorable audition with a big casting director who 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? Do you kiss? Who goes to see that movie?'” she recalled.
She said she left that audition teaching those in the room never to question her again.
Since then, she did voice-overs for Disney, played the wife of Denzel Washington in “The Mighty Quinn,” had roles in “The Distinguished Gentleman,” “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” “The Flintstones,” “White Man’s Burden” and many other featured film projects.
On the small screen, she made guest appearances on tons of sitcoms, dramatic series, and soap operas before landing her first main cast roles as Deidra Mitchell on the Brandy-led show “Moesha.”
Talent When Out
Over the past five decades, the diva (as friends and family call her) has worked hard to turn every lukewarm handclap into thunderous applause, winning them over with her talent. Now, at the age of 66, she is taking no shorts — and receiving standing ovations at every turn.
An example of that was when a producer from CBS’ “Fam” asked her what she had done in her career. She shared she was one of the stars of the hit UPN 1990s sitcom. Then he followed it up with “Do you sing?”
The Broadway star stopped him in his tracks and said, “Excuse me for a minute. But maybe you should ask somebody because you might be very embarrassed that you asked me that question, and I want us to get off on the right foot together.”
She used this as a learning lesson, “Even in unsuspecting places, that can be very much a thing where there are certain people who have no idea who you are and what you’ve done after all these years.”
In addition to overt racism, she has had to face over the years, Ralph has also had to deal with the same issue that actors like Mo’nique, Viola Davis, and even Cicely Tyson have encountered: the race and gender pay gap. This will likely not change with the win of her Emmy.
In 2015, Davis brought this up when she won her Emmy for her role in “How to Get Away with Murder,” saying the lack of roles and lack of equitable pay goes hand-in-hand.
“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said, adding.“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Black Actresses Undervauled
According to research done by Refinery 29, the 2016 Forbes list of the world’s 10 highest-paid actresses included no Black women.
Variety said Tracee Ellis Ross was, at the time, the only Black woman on the highest paid comedy actors list, making $80,000 per episode of “black-ish.” However, juxtapose her salary with those of her white peers (Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco, and Johnny Galecki) who made over $1 million per episode on the “Big Bang Theory,” she is sorely undervalued.
The same story goes in the drama category. Kerry Washington and Viola Davis made an estimated $250,000 per episode of their hit Shondaland ABC series and Taraji P. Henson made per episode about $175,000 for Empire. Their combined salaries just inched over both Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel’s individual salaries per episode of the short “Gilmore Girls” reboot.
But this does not stop Ralph from pushing the envelope and diversifying her brand. She is not just the object of attention, but behind the camera and at the board table, making those decisions to provide jobs for people that look like her.
With a net worth of $5 million, many wonder what this member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. does with her financial portfolio.
In addition to acting, Ralph is an author, pulling from all of these experiences to pass on wisdom to the next generation.
Her first was a memoir released by Simon and Schuster in 2012 titled “Redefining Diva: Life Lessons From The Original Dreamgirl.” Ralph is gearing up to release her next book, “DIVA 2.0: Life Lessons From Me For You,” in February.
According to Caribbean Heritage, she is an investor, currently producing through her production company, Island Girl Productions.
One of her first offerings was a 1998 award-winning film short, “Secrets,” starring Alfre Woodard, Tina Lifford, Victoria Rowell, La Tanya Richardson, Robin Givens, and herself, that she wrote, directed, and produced.
In October, the long-time HIV/ AIDS activist announced in Variety magazine she will be producing a documentary short titled “Unexpected” about women of color living in the South with HIV.
According to its website, her D.I.V.A. Foundation has given out over $3 million in support to organizations like Project Angel Food, Better Brothers Los Angeles, Women Alive Coalition, Black AIDS Institute, Walkgood LA, Baby Buddies/C.A.R.E. Program, Minority AIDS Project, and Rues House (Residential Home for Women and Children with AIDS), all missioned to “provide critical services to all members of the LGBTQ+ community, women and children, and are inclusive of persons of color.”
In a full-circle moment, she has returned to the “Great White Way,” this time not gracing the stage as she did in “Dreamgirls,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” or “Wicked,” but behind the scenes. Her first venture was “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” and short-run “Ohio State Murders.”
The wife of Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent Hughes and the mother of two is not stopping here. She said her goal is to grind it out and be among the elite fraternity of 17 award winners.
After her historic win last fall, she said, “I’ve got an Emmy, so why not go for the EGOT?”
This means there is definitely more to come.