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Waterbury native sang her acceptance speech for a reason

Sheryl Lee Ralph accepts the supporting actress in a comedy series award for “Abbott Elementary” during the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Monday.
Sheryl Lee Ralph arriving at the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

If you forgot that “Abbott Elementary” star Sheryl Lee Ralph is also a Tony-nominated singer, don’t worry. She just reminded you.

During the 74th Emmys on Monday, the acclaimed veteran performer sang the house down upon winning the award for supporting actress in a comedy. But instead of the traditional acceptance speech, the “Moesha” actor channeled a song by jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves.

“I am an endangered species / But I sing no victim’s song / I am a woman, I am an artist / And I know where my voice belongs,” she thundered a cappella, reciting lines from Reeves’ “Endangered Species,” which appeared on her 1994 album, “Art & Survival.”

Receiving standing ovations before and after she took the stage, Ralph dedicated her first Emmy to dreamers.

“To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream and thought your dream wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true, I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like,” she said as several of her peers rose from their seats. “This is what striving looks like.”

Sheryl Lee Ralph, left, and husband Vincent Hughes attend the premiere of “Abbott Elementary” at The Disney Studios lot in Burbank, California, on Dec. 4, 2021. (Michael Tran/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

“And don’t you ever, ever give up on you, because if you get a Quinta Brunson in your corner, if you get a husband like mine in your corner, if you get children like mine in your corner, and if you’ve got friends like everybody who voted for me, cheered for me, loved me – thank you! Thank you!”

Ralph earned the Emmy for her turn as Barbara Howard, a schoolteacher, in ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” Her victory marked the first prime-time win for “Abbott Elementary,” which also won the comedy writing award for creator Quinta Brunson.

Backstage after her win, Ralph explained what the song means to her and why she performed it.

“I’ve been singing that song for years because I think of myself as an artist, as a woman, and especially as a woman of color, I’m an endangered species,” she said. “And I don’t sing any victim song. I’m a woman. I’m an artist, and I know where my voice belongs.

“There are so many young actors, artists, even kids that think they know what they’re going to do in life,” she added. “Find your voice and put it where it belongs.”

Jackée Harry, who won an Emmy in 1987 for her role on “227,” was among Hollywood stars who celebrated Ralph’s win and her powerful performance.

“For 35 years I’ve been the only black woman to win Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series,” Harry tweeted Monday night, sharing a photo from her Emmys victory. “But that changes tonight…and it’s come full circle!”

“The. Sheryl. Lee. Ralph,” tweeted the Black List founder Franklin Leonard. “Nothing more need be said.”

“SHERYL. LEE . RALPH,” repeated Lynda Carter.

“All Black women need is the opportunity,” tweeted Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham. “We already know how to shine.”

Already in Waterbury Hall of Fame

Sheryl Lee Ralph receives a ceremonial key to the city from Waterbury Mayor Neil M. OLeary during a visit to the then-new Jonathan E. Reed School in 2012. (Republican-American archives)

Sheryl Lee Ralph was born in Waterbury on Dec. 30, 1955, to Ivy and Stanley Ralph. Her father was a music teacher at Tinker School, and her mother was a Jamaican fashion designer. Sheryl Lee attended Driggs Elementary School and Notre Dame Academy in Waterbury before the family moved to Jamaica, then returned to the United States and settled in Uniondale, N.Y., where she graduated from high school in 1972. She attended Rutgers University for college.

Her path to stardom began in 1981 when she was cast in the Broadway hit “Dreamgirls.” She made several movies and was in the TV show “Moesha” before landing her current role on “Abbott Elementary.”

She was inducted into the Waterbury Hall of Fame in 2015 in a class that included Jane Doe No More founder Donna Palomba.


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