The Life and Legacy of Sheryl Lee Ralph, the First Black Woman to Win an Emmy for Comedy

The Life and Legacy of Sheryl Lee Ralph, the First Black Woman to Win an Emmy for Comedy

Sheryl Lee Ralph

Born on 30th December 1956, in Waterbury, Connecticut, USA, Sheryl Lee Ralph is a talented singer and actress, who made history as the first black woman in 35 years to receive the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. Sheryl shot to fame when just 25 years old after playing Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls”, with her performance garnering a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.

Early Years

Sheryl was born to parents Stanley Ralph, a college professor, and Ivy Ralph, a fashion designer of Jamaican descent, known for creating the Kariba suit. Her younger brother, Michael, would later follow in his famous sister’s footsteps by becoming an actor and comedian in his own right.

Throughout her childhood, Sheryl was raised between Mandeville, Jamaica, and Long Island, and matriculated from Uniondale High School in New York in 1972. During her time there, Sheryl landed a leading role in the high school’s production of “Oklahoma!”; she was also crowned Miss Black Teen-age New York.

After matriculating, Sheryl studied at Rutgers University and became its youngest-ever female graduate at the age of 19. Similar to her high school days, Sheryl excelled at university, winning an Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, and being named one of the top ten college women in America by Glamour magazine.

Initially, Sheryl wanted to make her parents proud by studying medicine, however, her priorities changed after she won the Irene Ryan scholarship in a competition.

Career: 1970s to 1990s

Sheryl’s career began with a role in Sidney Poitier’s 1977 film, “A Piece of the Action”. Before landing her big break, the actress also made appearances in “Wonder Woman”, “The Jeffersons”, “Good Times”, and a host of other TV shows. A year before playing Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls”, Sheryl began making a name for herself on the Broadway circuit, when she was cast in “Reggae”.

Image source

While starring on Broadway in “Dreamgirls”, Sheryl also had a recurring role in the CBS soap opera “Search for Tomorrow”. Shortly after being nominated for a prestigious Tony Award, the Connecticut native signed to Sid Bernstein’s music label, and released “In the Evening”, her only studio album to date. In the same year, the album’s title track reached the fifth spot on the Billboard Dance Music/Club Play Singles chart.

Despite her mildly successful album, it was evident that Sheryl preferred to focus on acting, or perhaps found it challenging to juggle a busy filming schedule with studio sessions. Her first voiceover role was in the 1988 Disney film “Oliver & Company”; a year later, she starred alongside Denzel Washington in “The Mighty Quinn”, her first leading role in a film.

The 1990s were also a brilliant decade for Sheryl, as she won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female after a stunning performance in “To Sleep with Anger”. In 1992, the singer starred opposite Robert De Niro in “Mistress”, co-starred with Eddie Murphy in “The Distinguished Gentleman”, and played Etienne Toussaint-Bouvier in “Designing Women”.

From 1996 to 2001, Sheryl was nominated five times for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role in “Moesha”. Despite having her hands more than full with so much work, Sheryl found time to produce “Divas Simply Singing”, a health awareness benefit show, which later become known as one of the most important fundraisers for AIDS research.

Career: 2000s Onwards

Although Sheryl was clearly the star of the family, in the early 2000s her son Etienne also featured in an episode of both “My Super Sweet 16” and “Baldwin Hills”, whereas her daughter Ivy-Victoria appeared alongside her mother and brother in an episode of “Clean House”.

Shortly after Adriane Lenox dropped out of “The First Wives Club” due to health reasons, it was announced that Sheryl would be replacing her as Elyse. Despite the actress’s career slowing down somewhat after decades in the industry, she still worked regularly, with cameos in “Smash” and “Terrors” amongst other series.

In early 2019, Sheryl was cast as one of the main characters in “Fam”, a TV series that was cancelled after one season due to low ratings. Nevertheless, this failure was promptly eclipsed by the success of “Abbott Elementary”, a hit sitcom which Sheryl joined in 2022. As mentioned, Sheryl’s portrayal of elementary teacher Barbara Howard made her the second black actress in history to win a Primetime Emmy Award in a comedy category, with the first one being Jackée Harry in 1987.

Naturally, Sheryl’s Emmy win was a trending topic for several days, with Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé, and other A-listers showing the actress their support with flowers and social media shoutouts. In 2023, Sheryl also won the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, and performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, which is generally recognized as the Black national anthem, at the Super Bowl LVII pre-show.

Personal Life

Sheryl has never spoken much about her private life and prefers to be known for her hard work instead of who she’s dating. In 2001, she divorced her first husband Eric Maurice, a Euro-African businessman and public figure, who is also the father of her two children. The reasons behind Sheryl and Eric’s divorce remain a mystery to this day, but the pair are believed to remain on good terms for the sake of their son and daughter.

In July 2005, Sheryl became married to Vincent Hughes, the Pennsylvania State Senator. Vincent was born in 1956 and served as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from the 190th District during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since 1994, Vincent has been representing the 7th District.

Sheryl and Vincent met in 2003, and found that they had more in common than they thought, as both had two children from previous marriages. Due to the nature of Vincent’s job, the couple have abstained from sharing details of their relationship.

In 2023, Sheryl received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from her alma mater, Rutgers University.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.