Sheryl Lee Ralph on ‘Abbott Elementary’, her marriage to State Sen. Vincent Hughes and the show’s Philly credentials

Sheryl Lee Ralph recalled that it was 20 years ago when State Senator Vincent Hughes presented the actor with a gift in a not-quite powder-blue box with a white bow that started their love story.

Like a punchline Abbott Elementary School, Quinta Brunson’s Philadelphia-focused ABC sitcom, in which Ralph plays the omniscient kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard, the gift was… a Pennsylvania almanac. Cue one of those dead reactions to the invisible mockumentary cameras that follow teachers at Abbott, the underfunded fictional Philly public school that has captivated the nation.

“In it he wrote, ‘So you know more about all the things I really love,'” said Ralph, 66, who was nominated for a Tony in 1982 for her role as Deena Jones in the original dream girl On Broadway.

“I was so intrigued that this man,” her husband since July 30, 2005, who represents the 7th Circuit of Pennsylvania, “wanted me to know from the start, ‘I care about my state and I love my city.’”

Now, as the already iconic, Jim Gardner-loving, always freshly manicured, royal Mrs. Howard on the breakout show, Ralph is finally wielding some Philly recognition of his own.

Especially with her nearly 99-year-old mother-in-law, Ann Hughes, she said, whose long career as a school secretary in Philadelphia was part of Ralph’s inspiration for her unwavering character.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Everyone is so happy that I’m doing this. And that I spend so much time in Philadelphia. So it’s a lot more real. You know it’s not just actors playing the part.”

» READ MORE: All Philly references in Abbott Elementary

Ralph says she’s in Philadelphia every two weeks, but people are still surprised to see her here. (Her home in Philly is in Wynnefield.)

“First of all, 20 years, to hold this marriage together you have to be together at some point,” she said. “Vincent can’t leave the state like I can leave the state. In fact, I’d say my husband has been to California maybe 25 times in the 20 years we’ve been together. That means I’m in Philadelphia every two weeks.

“After 20 years, people still don’t know or realize that we’re married,” she said. “That I live there part-time. It’s always like, ‘What are you doing?’ “Er, I’m married to Sen. Hughes. I live here.'”

Ralph’s own career enters its fifth decade from the Star Tournament on Broadway 40 years ago dream girl, by rolling in Moesha, Ray Donovan, sister act 2and most recently as producer of the Broadway play thoughts of a colored person.

Suddenly being in the middle of a hit sitcom is something else entirely, as magical as an instant Broadway smash, she said in a recent interview via Zoom, looking radiant with glamorous makeup and big hoops for a press day and a warm yellow made a dress that matched the walls of her (part-time) home in Los Angeles.

“When we did dream girl, we knew right away people loved us by the way they stood up and applauded, queuing around the block for tickets,” she said. “As soon as the show starts, social media immediately starts hitting. … As soon as the show is over, they talk about it, they laugh about it. When I heard the numbers quadruple, I was like, ‘Wow. That’s great.'”

The cast is indelible, from Barbara Howard’s effortless teaching and heavenly confidence to Brunson’s overzealous, serious teacher Janine Teagues to hilariously narcissistic headmistress Ava Coleman to comedian Janelle James and Branzino-marinating “Philly 11” South Philly teacher Melissa Schemmenti, played by Lisa Ann Walter, whose loving friendship and bond with Howard as “Oldheads” at Abbott is an ongoing storyline. (Schemmenti is from New York).

“I love the whole South Philly thing, you know, where she’s like that,” and here Ralph Schemmenti imitating South Philly imitated: “I’ve got someone for everything. You need something? What do you need? Need reinforcement? What do you need?”

Ralph’s own take on the joke of obsessing over Gardner, the soon-to-be retiree Action News Anchor — stirs her coffee as Barbara Howard, inhales his image up close on the TV in the teachers’ lounge, recalls seeing the iconic anchor once, “in the Chipotle,” then dreamily rhymes, “He’s so ordered a bowl good looking– is sitcom genius.

Ralph originally wanted to play Ava, the headmistress, she said. “When I first read the script and spoke to Quinta, I loved the role of the principal,” she said. “Breaking out of what people would normally expect me to do, and I said, ‘Yeah, let me do that.’ And she said, “Absolutely not. We need a queen for Barbara Howard and you are that queen.”

“‘We need the wisdom you bring to this character. We need you to show women that they don’t have to suffer for long in this job, it’s their passion and that passion has turned into this power.’”

It’s no surprise that such a detailed show resonates so widely in Philadelphia, Ralph said.

“I don’t know if people can see it, but Philly is a resilient city,” she said. “It’s an artistic city. It really, really vibrates with the American voice, with the black cultural voice. It truly is, however you look at it, it is the epicenter of America. … There is literal human magic in Philadelphia. If Philadelphia and Pennsylvania get it right, much as they say everything comes from California, America as a whole gets it right. “

» READ MORE: Quinta Brunson talks about growing up in Philly and Abbott Elementary

But the Philly synergy of her marriage and career has taken on new meaning, she said, as her husband ramps up efforts to increase funding for Philadelphia schools. Hughes tweeted his own video of classrooms showing mold and asbestos, calling the schools “broken, toxic, rodent infested and unacceptable”. There’s no laughing.

“To see him use his voice to fight for a proper education for all the children in the state and God putting me on the path to having a show that’s all about Philadelphia, with the trajectory of teachers , Education and the students, is like God at times and the Heavenly Mother Goddess is amazing how it all comes together,” she said.

“I’m just doing what I’ve always done. And he’s doing what he’s always done. And together it’s become a very powerful thing.”

She said the conversation about public schools in American cities like Philadelphia “should have happened a very long time ago.”

“Everybody’s having this conversation about education in America now,” she said. “Everyone, including the teachers themselves, are having conversations about what they are getting from the government, from the community, from the schools, from the families in terms of the education of all our children.

“This is a magical time,” she said. “It’s a wonderful time. This is a conversation that should have happened a long time ago. But if it lasted Abbott Elementary School created by Philly’s own Quinta Brunson, so be it.”

Ralph, who has two children from a previous marriage, said she’s grateful for the arc of a great career and for being so fulfilled in a profession that can often write women off after the age of 30. She’s also the creator of the 30-year DIVAS Simply Singing fundraiser to fight AIDS, an epidemic with parallels to COVID-19, she says (referring to condom resistance and mask resistance).

As a badass but supportive mentor on the show for Brunson’s Janine, Ralph said the cross-generational dynamic between the two women resonates off-screen.

“Whenever I’m around Quinta, she likes to sit next to me and just look at me,” Hughes said. “There is a possibility that she would reach out and just touch me. And it’s just such a great feeling. Or she writes something, you know, and says, ‘Sheryl, what do you think about that?’ And I’m just like, ‘God, I just love it.'”

She’s impressed with the way the studio has recreated Philadelphia in Los Angeles and promises more authentic shots are to come, but wishes some of the location shots could be filmed in Philadelphia. She called on the city and state to enact some movie tax credits to help make that happen.

“If I tell you they built Philadelphia in California, they even built the El,” she said. “I was like, ‘Woah, wouldn’t it be great if some of these exteriors were filmed in Philadelphia?'”

Ralph says she’s ready Abbott Elementary School, which, let’s be honest, as Brunson himself predicted, quickly tore down the Philly baton Mare by Easttown, to have a long life, like Greys Anatomy lang.

“Actors pray for a hit,” she said. “I was very, very blessed to walk from here dream girl to it’s a life, to Moesha, sister act 2, Ray Donovan, Abbott Elementary School, so many other things in between. I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is the big hit.’”

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