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Hit show 'Abbott Elementary' addresses education equity through a comedic lens
Geoff Bennett: And now look at how popular culture is drawing greater awareness to the challenges facing public education. I recently spoke to one of the stars of a TV show schooling people on daily realities inside the classroom. It's part of our Arts and Culture series called Canvas.
Abbott Elementary is a hit new series on ABC tackling the issues of public education and equity using humor. It's a workplace comedy focused on a group of dedicated teachers at an underfunded elementary school in Philadelphia. The approach has provided new ways of looking at tough issues and refocusing the audience's attention on enduring problems.
I'm joined by veteran actress Sheryl Lee Ralph who plays Barbara Howard, an elementary school teacher who has seen it all on the show. She's also known for her breakthrough roles as Deena Jones and Broadway's Dreamgirls, which earned her a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. She later became a cultural fixture, thanks to roles in TV shows like Moesha, and films such as Sister Act 2. Welcome Sheryl Lee Ralph. It's great to have you here on the NewsHour.
Sheryl Lee Ralph, Actor, "Abbott Elementary": Thank you. It's good to be here.
Geoff Bennett: We should say that this show is ABC's first comedy to quadruple its rating since its premiere. Why do you think this show was resonating in the way that it is?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: There's something about the way this show with the use of entertainment, comedy is talking about something that's on everybody's minds. And that is teachers and the education or lack there off of America's children.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: All right, sometimes it's spelled B-U-L, which is interesting.
Woman: What is going on in this classroom?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Hey, Mrs. Howard. I'm just teaching the kids some sight word.
Woman: You're abandoning the phonics principle that these children need. This is a classroom not a homie stan.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh, boom, hoagie.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Abbott Elementary is all about paying attention to the needs of some of the most underrated, underappreciated people in America, America's teachers.
Man: No bulls are so disrespectful.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: They deserve more. They deserve more respect. They deserve more support. They deserve to be paid more, more should be given to those who mold the hearts and the minds of America's children, do not take what it is they bring to this country, to their communities, to our cities. Do not underestimate that. Because when you underestimate that you underestimate the possibility of America's children.
Geoff Bennett: It strikes me, that comedy is an interesting way to look at these issues and elevate them. And people don't really even know that they're learning something as they're watching the show.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Absolutely. That is the magic of Quinta Brunson, our young creator, you know, her mother was a teacher. So she went to school with her mother for years, she saw the inward workings of schools, like Philadelphia, where she's from, and she has taken her gift of writing, her gift of comedy is her intelligence to write these stories in a way that actually just bring it home for people.
Quinta Brunson, Writer: I was in the gifted program too.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Where you give to that being annoying?
Quinta Brunson: No.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: People laugh, they laugh, they enjoy it. And then they have conversations that last five hours once the show is over. I mean, comedy is an amazing thing. It deserves more respect, just like teachers.
Geoff Bennett: How did you meet Quinta Brunson? Because I as I understand it, you want it to play the role of the principal in the show, but she had other ideas.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh, she had very different ideas. In fact, she was steadfast. She said, absolutely not, Ms. Ralph, we need a queen for Mrs. Howard. And you are that queen.
Quinta Brunson: How's going with a new program?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh, it's a little hard to understand. But I'm getting the hang of it.
Quinta Brunson: Just somehow lost my crypto wallet. But you come from a different generation. And so it'd be totally understandable if you were having trouble with it.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Are you kidding me? I miss tech, you know, I love tech shop at the App Store, got a Hotmail, I once even wrote in a Tesla.
And I was like, oh my god, I love this girl. I love her. She and I had actually met on this set of another show called A Black Lady Sketch Show. And she spent a great deal of time just looking at me, just observing me. And it was wonderful some 18 months later to get this call of an offer for this show that she had. And she just wanted me that, would you please just meet all the people, Ms. Ralph.
Geoff Bennett: What do you think given your vantage point in your career, you have opened so many doors for young actresses and producers. And you have folks like Quinta Brunson, Issa Rae, and Lena Waithe, who are not only stars of their own projects, but creators and producers of them.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: You know what it has been a long and rocky road to get to this place in an industry that when I was younger than they are now he was very quick to tell me that there was no place in it for me that it could only be a side hobby, because there was so little that would be made available to me, how would I possibly make a living out of it? But I had such incredible mentors that came before me.
Man: They just don't make men like Sidney Poitier anymore.
Woman: They most certainly do not.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Sidney Poitier, who will recently last cast me in my very first film, taught me so much about what it was like to be in an industry that was going to make it difficult for you, lessons right down to, you better learn how to do your own hair and makeup because there will not be anybody there to do that for you. They understood how difficult it would be for me, and to not let the industry stop me because I love what I do so much. I know the heavy lifting that went on it took place to get us to this beautiful time.
Geoff Bennett: Wow. This past December marks 40 years since the legendary Broadway production of Dreamgirls for which you were nominated for Tony, as we mentioned. When you reflect back, how do you sort of characterize the impact of that role on your career and the culture of generally?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: There's something about the lyrics and the song, every girl has her own special dream. And those dreams are about to come true. If you just open your eyes to what's in front of you. From then until now I say that all those little girls look in the mirror, open your eyes and love what you see because you are your dream come true that I can make it, you can make it trust me. All things are possible. Dreamgirls has had a major impact and I'm happy to see that impact continue 40 years later.
Geoff Bennett: Sheryl Lee Ralph, thanks so much for your time. And again congratulations on the success of Abbott Elementary.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Thank you. I am Barbara Howard.
Geoff Bennett: Abbott Elementary is available to stream on Hulu and on ABC.