‘Greenleaf’ stars Merle Dandridge and Lynn Whitfield talk about the OWN series
Oprah Winfrey once reinvented the talk show, and appears to be making headway with reinventing the television network — in fact, her OWN. Since 2016, she’s launched three solid successes, including the recent “Love Is —” and the Ava DuVernay creation, “Queen Sugar.”
The other success is especially unusual. “Greenleaf” has entered its third season (it airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays) as OWN’s signature series. And not just any signature series: The boss has a starring role and is executive producer.
There’s nothing like “Greenleaf” anywhere on television, and one can safely aver, there never really has been, either. A thoughtful exploration of faith and family, this series wonders aloud and at times urgently about what causes people of faith to lose sight of God. Money? You can check that box. Power? That one, too. The show centers on Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David), a renowned and wealthy preacher at the Calvary Fellowship megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee, (but filmed in Atlanta) and his steel-hard wife, Lady Mae Greenleaf. She’s played by a legend, Lynn Whitfield, who won an Emmy for her portrayal of Josephine Baker in the 1991 HBO movie.
But at the heart of the series is the eldest Greenleaf daughter, Grace, played by Merle Dandridge. Grace had followed in her father’s footsteps as a preacher then abruptly quit and left home. (“Greenleaf” began when she returned home.) She has a fraught relationship with her mother. Mae is Queen, so to speak, of the parish. Grace believes in speaking truth to power. Mother and daughter are at loggerheads, always.
While money may sink Calvary Fellowship, a darker family secret may destroy the Greenleafs. Besides faith, this series is also about sexual abuse.
As the new season gets underway, the extended Greenleaf family is witnessing its own freefall, because of financial mismanagement and one particularly devastating charge that Aunt Mavis McCready (Winfrey), sister of Mae, has been involved with the bishop.
I spoke recently to both Whitfield, whose TV career began in 1981 on “Hill Street Blues,” and whose ties to Winfrey date back to 1989’s “The Women of Brewster Place,” and to Merle Dandridge, who last week ended her run as Papa Je, in the Tony Award-winning revival of “Once on This Island” at Circle in the Square.
Q: Mae’s a great character but I imagine a divisive one with fans, too. Do you see her that way?
A: I don’t find her to be divisive, but honestly, she’s pretty much what you see is what you get. She wants to have a safe harbor and great legacy and she’ll go about making that happen as best she can. I find that in characters, if a man is trying to hold on to what he has one thing, but if a woman has the same kind of what you might call animal instinct to be territorial to command her space, it’s “divisive” or the B-word.
Q: Ha. OK, amen and touche.
A: (Laughs.) She might use her feminine wiles to expedite her sort of masculine power of keeping control of the situation.
Q: The series in a sense seems to be a journey of reconciliation with your daughter Grace, whose name has a double meaning because in a sense, by rejecting Grace, she’s rejecting God’s grace. Do you agree?
A: Oh it’s far simpler than that! If you remember the first line of the series, when Lady Mae welcomed her daughter home, she looks her dead in the eye and says, “Promise me you won’t sow discord in the fields of my peace.” … Lady Mae knows that this is a safe harbor and she’s covered portions of it with a blanket of denial she knows that Grace is going to upset the apple cart. She is almost afraid of Grace and her speaking the truth.
Q: Mae is obviously a character in pain, and it seems apparent her pain is even deeper, with the revelation that her own sister may have had an affair with the bishop. Where does that relationship go from here?
A: This is about an archetypal thing like forgiveness. How do we make our way through that low muddy murky valley of unforgiveness? So for me, it shines a light on that which so many people suffer from. Forgiving is really difficult.
Q: Why has television avoided the subject of faith?
A: It’s hard to dramatize someone’s day in, day out relationship and conversation with God.
Q: But “Greenleaf” can be — and often is — critical of the power structure of the church and the role money plays. Has “Greenleaf” been criticized by real churches, notably the AME (African Methodist Episcopal Church) for this portrayal?
A: They all feel like these are subjects that need to be spoken about. We were just doing press in Detroit and a journalist interviewing me cried in my arms, and said she had been raped twice in a church. This isn’t a soap opera. It’s a reflection of life.
Q: Where do you see “Greenleaf” going from here?
A: It’s all in Oprah’s and Craig’s hands. I can certainly see, with everything these people are going through that it can take a few more seasons to work out the kinks.
Q: So you are indeed leaving “Once on This Island” for good?
A: My run was always coincided so that I’d to be available for “Greenleaf.” My time with the show was so brief. We spent so much time developing then a month after opening I had to go back to “Greenleaf.”
Q: A woman of God, Grace is also an avenger who killed Mac McCready (Greg Alan Williams), her uncle, who had sexually abused so many young girls, including her sister, Faith. How did Oprah, who also suffered abuse in her own life, help define her character?
A: Oprah poured a lot of herself into Grace, but this is also about getting the conversation started around this particular subject and walking through the particular journey that Grace is having. And it has indeed opened so many conversations — I can’t begin to tell you how many.
Q: One running theme, a tragic one, of “Greenleaf” is the impact of sexual abuse on families.
A: It’s been so taboo to talk about for so long, but because “Greenleaf” is “quote, unquote” fiction, then it has made it finally OK to talk about it. Many people, fans, have been able to finally tell their parents. We have taken the lid off of this and made room for healing, or at least the beginning of healing. That’s what I’ve always endeavored for.
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