Why Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Emmy Win Was ‘Truly a Full Circle Moment’

When Sheryl Lee Ralph took the Emmy stage last week to a standing ovation, it was a long time coming. In fact, some in the entertainment industry think Ralph has been overdue for an award of this caliber for more than three decades. 

Ralph, who won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, has garnered legions of fans for portraying Philadelphia school teacher Barbara Johnson in the breakout ABC hit Abbott Elementary. It was Ralph’s first Emmy win, though the actor has graced fans with an illustrious credit list since the 1970s. Over the years she has won and been nominated for a number of prestigious acting awards, though none might be quite so poignant as this Emmy.

Sheryl Lee Ralph is only the second Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy 

As Johnson in Abbott Elementary, the no-nonsense, seen-it-all educator reluctantly takes fledgling teacher Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson) under her wing. She imparts her wisdom from decades of teaching kindergarteners, though whether Janine follows that wisdom depends on the episode

Ralph came to Abbott with quite the resume behind her: She starred in Moesha, It’s A Living, and Instant Mom, among a myriad of other film and TV credits. She won an Independent Spirit Award for her role in the 1990 film To Sleep With Anger, and was nominated for a Tony award for her role in the Broadway version of Dreamgirls

Ralph is only the second Black woman to take home the golden Emmy statuette for the supporting actress in a comedy category, and the first to do so in 35 years. Jackée Harry was the first to do so in 1987 for playing Sandra Clark in 227. In the first half of her acceptance speech, Ralph belted out lyrics to Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species,” perhaps the most memorable moment of the entire night. 

“I am an endangered species, but I sing no victim’s song,” Ralph sang in a clear, strong voice. “I am a woman, I am an artist, and I know where my voice belongs / I know where my soul belongs, I know where I belong.”

Jackée Harry congratulated Ralph on Facebook

Sheryl Lee Ralph Emmy
Sheryl Lee Ralph, winner of Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for “Abbott Elementary”, poses in the press room during the 74th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at the Microsoft Theater on September 12, 2022. | Evans Vestal Ward/NBC via Getty Images

Ralph claimed victory at the recent Emmys, but could have cried foul for missing out on an earlier one — if she did believe in singing victims’ songs. As Jackée Harry recounted in a Facebook post, network executives originally wanted to cast Ralph in 227 as Sandra Clark. However, Harry ultimately got the part, and the Emmy for her portrayal. “Now, Sheryl joins me as the 2nd black woman in this category and deservedly so! I’m so exited [sic] for her Emmys win!”

Harry said that winning her Emmy was a career highlight, but acknowledged it was a “lonely” existence. “But that all changes tonight…and it’s come full circle!” she wrote. She went on to praise Ralph’s work on Abbott Elementary. “Sheryl’s had a remarkable career AND she’s one of the nicest people in Hollywood. Barbara Howard on Abbott Elementary is another fabulous character we’ve been fortunate to watch her breathe life into.”

In the comments, Ralph thanked Harry for her words of praise. “Jackee, thank you Queen! This moment means so much. I’m so proud to join you!” she wrote. “Funny how life brings us to where we need to be and in so many interesting ways! Truly a full circle moment! Wow!!!”

Ralph says the role of Barbara Johnson on ‘Abbott Elementary’ is ‘an incredible gift’ 

This fall, Ralph will reprise her role as Barbara in Abbott‘s sophomore season. We’re likely to see more side-eyes and perhaps a musical moment or two as she continues to perfect her role as one of Abbott’s veteran teachers. 

ABC picked up the series for a full 22-episode run, a big jump from the debut 13 episodes in its first season. In the role, Ralph said she wants to keep delivering her lines in a way that makes her relatable on screen. “…So many teachers, oh my god, the way they’ve been responding to the character. They say they feel seen. They feel respected,” Ralph told Variety

Barbara is definitely not Ralph personified: the veteran teacher has a prescribed short hairstyle, penchant for sweater sets, and is the literal clutching-of-pearls type. However, Ralph said she couldn’t be more thrilled with the role. “Barbara Howard has been an incredible gift for me,” she said. 

Abbott Elementary returns to ABC Wednesday, September 21 at 9 p.m. EST.