I remember watching Sheryl Lee Ralph in the first few episodes of ABC’s Abbott Elementary and thinking to myself, ‘Give her an Emmy.’ Ralph makes it look so easy. As Barbara Howard, Ralph reveled in playing a character that could honor thousands of educators around the country without relying on caricature to deliver the comedy. It has been said a lot since Quinta Brunson’s sitcom debuted last December, but it bears repeating: Sheryl Lee Ralph needs to be recognized for her work in Abbott Elementary.
When I asked Ralph what Barbara Howard thinks of the documentary being filmed at her school, she laughed when she realized that she went into Howard’s voice immediately.
“I honestly think Barbara doesn’t give it much thought. She has seen this before, and she has heard the conversations people have about education over and over,” Ralph said. “Given her thirty years as an educator, she knows that less and less is being done. It’s very sad, and it’s why the character doesn’t play to the camera very much. The younger characters are aware of the camera, and she’s not really paying attention since she doesn’t think they should be there to begin with.”
Streaming platforms have dominated the awards conversation for so many years now that any time a network comedy gets attention, it feels like a revelation. Ralph is floored by how many people tune into Abbott every week at its regularly scheduled time, and it should be noted that this show has been causing waves all over social media. If water cooler moments still existed, we would be talking about the ABC comedy every week.
“That doesn’t happen very often. Chemistry is like class–you either have it or you don’t have it. This cast, from the very beginning when we shot the pilot, had amazing chemistry. I know it’s odd and strange, but I think Quinta [Brunson] is a bit of an alchemist. She can put her hand on magic and spread it around, and she hand-picked everybody for these roles. She took time doing it, and it has been a journey worth taking. We fit together like a zipper, and we don’t have to work hard at it. The magic extends into the writer’s room and who is writing these scripts. This does not happen often. I don’t know any other way to say it other than this is my easiest job. I feel like I am not working.”
Ralph noted that so many people ask if that chemistry is found on the fly, but she was quick to point out that it comes from the richness of the writing. If the audience thinks that a performer is coming up with golden moments on the spot, it’s really a reflection of the connection between an actor and the writing found on the page.
“In thirteen episodes, I had one moment where I wanted to refocus a section. That’s when the college students come into my classroom, and Barbara tells Janine that she doesn’t want her students to feel less than. That was one time that I did that. For ‘Hank Has Two Turkeys,’ that was just written on the page, and I decided to sing it. In thirteen episodes, I only had three times where I did things a little differently. Everything is one the page.”
One of the best relationships that needs to get more attention is between Barbara and Melissa. If you re-watch moments in the teacher’s lounge, you can see that these two women are constantly sitting together, or they can be seen walking the halls with one another.
“They’re such an odd couple. You know when you have that friend who might need a little more attention and you can talk them off the bridge? That’s a wonderful bond, and I think Barbara is Melissa’s bridge-talker-off-er. We can talk about the most ridiculous things, and Barbara and Melissa love to shop.”
In the season one finale, Barbara suddenly finds herself at a crossroads and wonder if it time for her to move on from teaching. Normally, Barbara is the one that her colleagues go to for wisdom and guidance, and she isn’t used to being vulnerable in front of the other members of the teaching staff. Melissa then tells her, “No one is going to put you in the back,” and Barbara realizes that she needs to put herself front and center as well. She hasn’t ever felt that way before in her career.
“That’s absolutely true. Barbara can see that teaching is changing and that technology is new. You have that to be open to changing rapidly. In that wonderful second episode, Barbara has to learn how to use the tablet, and she comes to find that everyone is feeling the same way. She has to be open to moving forward, and she was almost defeated by something that ended up not being her fault. That was one thing. Having new teachers come in who don’t know the assignments and we end up with more turnovers than a bakery. Did you get the calling or not? Barbara is frustrated in that moment. They are surrounded by cameras every day and listening to everything they say, and Barbara knows that people need privacy, especially when you are dealing with children and families. I believe that by the end of those thirteen episodes, she was saying to herself, ‘Do I need to just move on?’ She has a wonderful husband and a great family that she could be spending more time with. She even has to help Gregory speak to his own students’ parents. And how is she reacting with this young, gay man in Jacob? Could he and Barbara, both literally and figuratively, build a garden together? That spoke volumes to me. I love this woman, and I love this character.”
It’s thrilling when an actor genuinely loves the part they are playing, and Ralph is thankful for her time in this ensemble. It’s only the beginning.
“Can you believe how much we can do in 21 minutes? Every week, millions of people have been waiting for nine o’clock on a Tuesday to see this show. Then millions more around the world, who have access to streaming, cannot wait to stream the show. It’s a phenomenon. I come from the theater, and there are some great lines in the song “One” from A Chorus Line. “One. Singular sensation. Every little song we shoot.” I look at Quinta, and she’s the one. I think about the lyrics, and it makes me feel so good.”
Season one of Abbott Elementary is streaming on Hulu now.