‘I Thank My Audiences for Staying with Me’: Sheryl Lee Ralph Reflects on Career and Being Considered ‘Black Famous’

Veteran actress Sheryl Lee Ralph rose to prominence thanks to her breakout role as Deena Jones in the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls.” Although her career may have started in the late ’70s, and she has since starred in over a dozen films and television shows, to some, Ralph is still “black famous,” a term in which an individual is primarily popular among Black people. 

During a recent roundtable discussion with The Hollywood Reporter, which featured several prominent Black entertainers, including Loretta DeVine, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Larenz Tate and Lynn Whitfield, Ralph reflected on a time when she went unrecognized by industry bigwigs despite her numerous contributions to the business.

BURBANK, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 04: Actor Sheryl Lee Ralph attends the “Abbott Elementary” Premiere at Walt Disney Studios on December 04, 2021 in Burbank, California. (Photo by Ray Tamarra/Getty Images)

“About two, maybe three years ago, I did a series called ‘Fam’ for CBS,” the 65-year-old recalled. “And one of the executive producers came up to me because the network and somebody else had said, ‘No, this is the person.’ So he walked right up to me on that first day, and he said, ‘So tell me, what have you done?’ “

The “Moesha” actress admitted she was stunned by the EP’s question, but she “was quiet.” He then asked the former Broadway star, “Do you sing?” 

“And I said, ‘Whoa,’ ” she continued. “So then I just 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.’ “

The incident taught the actress that “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.”

Ralph, who currently stars on the hit ABC mockumentary sitcom “Abbott Elementary,” also stressed the importance of marketing in reaching audiences. Looking back on the trajectory of her acting career, specifically from starring on “Ray Donavan” to now on “Abbott Elementary,” “It’s like boom, boom!” she said. 

“Two very different audiences, but the way those shows are marketed once again goes back to ‘Who gets to see you?’ What kind of famous do you become? ‘Black famous’ or just famous-famous?” she added. Still, she is thankful.

Highlighting her on-screen previously mentioned appearances, including other works such as “Sister Act 2” and “Motherland,” Ralph told the publication, “I thank my audiences for staying with me, hanging with me, and loving me from show to show to show.”

She added, “This has been probably one of the most amazing things — that I have been able to be in an industry that I absolutely love, to do something that I would actually do for free. Thank God I don’t have to, but I’m so happy to be an artist, to have started where I started, to now be where I am, knowing it’s not the ending.”

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