When pre-med student Sheryl Lee Ralph reached college, she got a quick lesson in being “the other.”
That was 1972, the first year Rutgers admitted women. There were only 450 of them – about one-percent of the enrollment; it was good preparation for her acting career.
“There was no room for me,” Ralph (shown here) – who has a key guest role in the season’s final two episodes of “Motherland: Fort Salem” – said of early auditions. “People were not open to open-casting back then.”
Unless stated otherwise, characters were assumed to be white and male. For a time, Ralph – who is Black, with Jamaican roots – played “a lot of teachers” and other scattered roles.
That comes to mind now, as she plays the America president in “Motherland,” at 10 p.m. Tuesdays (Aug. 17 and 24) on Freeform. “I love the fact that the world is run by women,” she said.
And by diverse women. The show focuses on three cadets at a war college, where witches prepare for key military missions. One of the three is Black; her mother is a general, No. 2 in command.
Then there’s President Kelly Wade, who rules any room she enters. “The character is so well-written,” Ralph said. “She just speaks to me.”
Ralph had never previously played a president or been one. (She is, however, running for vice-president of the Los Angeles branch of the actors’ union.) But she always seemed destined for something big.
The daughter of a professor and a fashion-designer, she split her childhood between New Jersey and Jamaica. When she got to Rutgers, it was accustomed to women in classes (shared with Douglass, an all-women’s school), but not in dorms. The women’s bathrooms still had urinals.
Ralph expected to go to medical school, until she confronted her first cadaver.
“When I knew I wasn’t going to be a doctor, I was going to go to law school,” she recalled. “It’s that immigrant thing: If you can’t be a doctor, be a lawyer, or marry one.”
But theater intervened. Rutgers hadn’t fully developed its acting program, but Ralph performed at Douglass; she won the Irene Ryan Scholarship, the top honor for college theater.
“My father had always said, ‘Do what’s going to make you happy,” she said. That was acting, despite the early complications.
Ralph got only brief roles for her first five years, then hit it big – a 1982 Tony nomination, as the original Deena in “Dreamgirls.”
She would return to Broadway only twice – originating a role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and taking a replacement role in “Wicked.” But she’s one of the producers of a play (“Thoughts of a Colored Man”), scheduled to open there on Oct. 31.
And she’s been a perpetual TV force. She starred in “It’s a Living” and was a regular in “Moesha,” “Instant Mom,” “George,” “Street Gear” and more. She did movies and was even a witch in HBO’s 1994 “Witch Hunt.”
Now, instead, she’s giving orders to witches … with one exception.
In the season-opener, the controversial Gen. Sarah Alder used a “puppeting” technique – making the president say someone else’s words, without realizing it.
For Ralph, who’s no one’s puppet, that was tough. Fortunately, she already knew what was coming at the end of the season. “I was so glad that there would be a time when I would come back in my voice.”
It’s a voice that seems potent and presidential.