Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for sticking with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. ABC has a hit, Abbott Elementary. It's the hilarious new mockumentary from Quinta Brunson. Who's also the creator of the Black Lady Sketch Show. Abbott Elementary follows the teachers and the compelling antihero principle of an under-resourced but determined public elementary school in Philadelphia.
The show's ratings quadrupled after its first week, an ABC comedy record. While the reality of the public school system is a no joke, Abbott Elementary allows us to laugh at the absurdity of a dire situation and to root for the unsung heroes of the public school system. Anchoring the compelling cast is Sheryl Lee Ralph who plays Barbara Howard, a no-nonsense veteran kindergarten teacher.
Teacher: Guys, could you sit down, please. Guys, I'm going to count to three. One, two--
Barbara Howard: And I am not counting. Sit down. I'm Barbara Howard, woman of God. I do my work. I go home. I get my nails done every week and I love teaching.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Like Ms. Howard, Sheryl Lee Ralph is a standout who's earned the respect of her colleagues. An award-winning actor of the big and small screen, she's one of the original Dreamgirls of Broadway. Now, Sheryl Lee Ralph dropped by The Takeaway so that we could talk about Abbott Elementary. The conversation was so much broader, deeper, and more compelling than a simple promotional stop. We started with a bit of Ralph's story of becoming a storyteller.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: That really started with my dad. My dad was a musician. Whether he was conducting the orchestra, conducting the choir, playing the organ in church. He started out as a music teacher. There was always song dance and entertainment around us, a play to be in. I'll never forget my brother. Stanley and I, we were about four and five-years-old, and both of us did summer stock of the miracle worker in Connecticut. That was it. For me it was just like, "Oh, I love this being on stage thing." We were surrounded by the arts. My mother a fashion designer, her work with textiles and breaking down barriers for men's fashion in the Caribbean. All sorts of arts. They were always around us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, we're going to dive in here a bit more on Abbott Elementary. One of the realities of so many public schools today is that the arts have been dramatically reduced or even stripped from the daily experience and learning experience of young people. I'm wondering as you're thinking about that, what is lose for young people who don't have those many introductions to the arts in their childhood?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: I believe that education should be true education. Not just education of some things, but education of as many things as possible to load into a brain to help it become the best thing it can be. When it comes to our computers and our phones, we put all kinds of information in it, and then they do the focus, they follow, they track and then they figure out, "Okay, what do you really, really love?"
I think that's how we've got to really approach it with children, give them everything. When you don't give children the arts, even if they're not going to pursue the arts, I don't think you give their brain everything it really needs to connect all of the synapse there to create a great thinking mechanism called a brain. We miss things when we take the arts out of the development of children and young people, we miss something.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me about DIVAS Simply Singing. You're celebrating your 30th year?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: My God, I think this is going to be the 32nd year.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Huh.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: How that all happened was, being original company member of Dreamgirls on Broadway, it was like the best and the worst of all times for me, and the best was, of course, being on Broadway and the Belle of the Ball on Broadway. There's nothing better than that. A couple of toney's to your show. All of that, nomination after nomination. In the midst of that came the worst, and that was when the last pandemic of AIDS hit and people just started dropping dead, not unlike they're dropping dead now.
It was a horrible experience to live through funeral, funeral, memorial, memorial. People confused about what to do with bodies. Oh, it was horrible. Very horrible to what it is now, but I learned so much and what I learned made me sad because I learned that people forget quickly. They forget things quickly.
We knew in the past that condoms were a known barrier to the virus. Couldn't get people to use them, respect them like we are still having a hard time getting people respect the mask. Could we get people to understand that the longer you let the virus stay out there, the more power you give it to mutate. It has been devastating for me to sit through the second wave, the second pandemic and see this loss of death because people refuse to learn from lessons of the past.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the things I'm wondering is if that forgetfulness is also related to believe about who is vulnerable. Then, in the context of HIV/AIDS that there was a sense that those who were vulnerable to HIV, vulnerable to AIDS were somehow disposable. I'm wondering if like our unwillingness to remember, our unwillingness to mask, our unwillingness to know our status as a nation is also related to the idea that those who are dying in this pandemic are also disposable. Older people, people of color, Latinos, those who are immune-compromised. It's like, "Oh, well, but those aren't the people who really matter."
Sheryl Lee Ralph: It's interesting to compare the two pandemics and who was lost. During that pandemic of HIV and AIDS, America could not have shown gay people of all colors, classes, and stripes, how much they hated them. They couldn't wait to just tell them on live TV, on the news march against them, fight them, track them down in the streets, beat them bloody in the street. They just couldn't wait to hate on gay people.
I am hoping that in this next wave that people of color now realize that they are the label that was slapped on them in this pandemic. They are essential. No matter what anybody thinks if they all shut down, if they're all not here. This nation will collapse. It is what you need. Because if you don't receive the help, they will stop giving you the help. You know what it's been like with the little bit of help we've had all of these years since 1619.
It's a miracle that we have come this far. The fact that we can have people in America that do not want people to know their secrets, do not want people to know that this American economy was built on the backs of people taken from another continent, brought here and put two back-breaking work. That's how the economy was built. That is a debt that must be repaid. This is a rough time and history is repeating itself. If history comes to us speaking another language and they think they're better than us, we are still under the knee.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I feel like there is a storytelling a joy, a culture, making a music making that is ours, even in those worst, and most painful, and most inequitable and oppressive times. I'm wondering also how you might think about art and performance and the ways that we pass our stories when it's not in the curriculum as also being part of the resistance work.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh, absolutely. For me, the arts I always say, I think about, can you imagine making that trip over here, that very first trip in the hull of that ship, 1619? That first ship-load of robbed people to come to a continent, to be stripped of their dignity, to be sold like chattel when all they might've had was a hum? All these years later, that hum has turned into a great song, a song of resilience, a song of determination a song of strength, a song of power, we can never lose our song because at one point that's all we had. We didn't even come with the same language, but maybe all we had was that hum that we could learn something together because we're amazing artists. I look at some of the art now being painted, being sculpted. I look at some of the music being written like a Chris Bowers. I listened to some of the art that's being done by a Quinta Brunson for us to look at and everybody to look at us and love us. I look now and I say, "Wow, our art, our dance, our song, our ability to carry on, now is not a time to die."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Part of what you put your finger on here is attention. I think that some people feel Abbot Elementary. It's a comedy about an under-resourced public school. For some folks the very notion that it could be comedic or that it somehow might be a negative portrayal of the ways that teachers and administrators are navigating those very few resources.
As I'm listening to you talk about the hum as a resource, perhaps the only resource available to those who've been hunted and captured and are entering into intergenerational chattel bondage. I'm wondering about how we tell the story about being able to navigate and create with so few resources without saying, "It's just okay to give us so few resources"?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: It's wrong. Education in America, how we see education, how we educate all young Americans, it's wrong. We've just got it wrong, because once again, we figure that certain people don't deserve it. We figure that certain people do not deserve the same quality education as there was a book that you learned to read from when I was See Jane Run, that they don't deserve of the same education as Jane.
That's wrong. The whole thing about Brown versus the Board of Education, it should be go beyond separate but equal. It's separate and it's still very, very, very, very unequal. You think that's not real? The book that's missing, the precedents? Oh, that's real. That happened. You can go to that school right now and see that. The toilet not working, the water fountains with mold in them, shutting down parts of the school, that's real. It happens.
That's why we want you to show it. That's what we want you to see and that's on purpose. You keep those children like that so that you can run that game on them. Don't educate them because you've already decided, if they cannot read by the third grade, we need to privatize prison so we can make a business out of them by putting them in prison. Locking them up, driving them crazy because they don't have anything to do.
You've spent so much time not educating these children that when that 11-year-old comes to your door, they're not coming to sell you cookies, it's a car jacking. Then, you want to be mad at the child because you didn't invest in education for all children because you had it in your mind that they deserve to be in prison. Or, wait a minute, and this was actually said by a politician, "Why should we spend more money on the those children when we need more hamburger flippers?" That's real.
If you don't want to hear the real, real, let me show you in a way that you will laugh, because if you laugh, it might hit you the right way. Now you're seeing it. You don't want to teach what is critical in thinking. You don't want to teach the reality, so let me show you so that you can laugh so that you can know.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sheryl Lee Ralph is actor, singer activist, diva extraordinaire, and today, historian and teacher. Thank you for joining us today.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Thank you. It was great being with you Melissa. I'm glad you found your joy, girl.
[00:14:50] [END OF AUDIO]
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