The black community, especially the faith-based black community, is known to culturally keep quiet about many issues that happen in life: depression, sexual abuse, domestic violence, homosexuality. All of these things exist in black churches, but it's very rare that we're vocal about them. This is exactly the sentiment explored in writer-producer Craig Wright's (Six Feet Under and Lost) new TV series, Greenleaf, on OWN.
Oprah Winfrey and her network are always striving to bring the best programming to the masses, and this summer they're fulfilling that goal tenfold. Greenleaf, the latest offering from the mogul's channel, is a drama series centered around a black megachurch in Memphis, Tenn., called Calvary Fellowship World Ministries. The church is run by the Greenleaf family—specifically, Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David, Enlisted and Community) and Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield, The Josephine Baker Story).
Whitfield is luxuriating in her role. She told The Root exclusively, "People love seeing a bitch they love to hate," regarding her role as first lady of the church. Think big money, big cars, big house, big jewels and bigger secrets. Their daughter, disillusioned preacher Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge, The Night Shift), has just returned home after 20 years because of the mysterious death of her sister, Faith.
As Grace re-enters the church and the world her parents have built around it, it becomes evident that things are not as holy as they seem, and the family’s outward display of faith covers a multitude of sins and misdeeds. Listen, everybody in this family is up to something, even Grace's well-mannered teenage daughter, Sophia (Desiree Ross). If you're into nail-biting and "Ooooh, I told you!" secrets, then this is the show for you.
The Root got a chance to screen the first episode, and we're already hooked. The ensemble cast also includes Lamman Rucker, Kim Hawthorne, Oprah Winfrey, Deborah Joy Winans and Tye White, and each of these lovely people attended the screening of the juicy show. The Root scored a couple of interviews to gain some insight into how they're able to tackle these meaty roles, why they said yes (besides the obvious: Oprah) and what makes this show different from anything you've ever seen on TV.
The Root: What made you say yes to this project?
Lynn Whitfield: It was almost nothing on the page for Lady May and I said yes. It was a commitment that I felt from Craig Wright, from Miss Winfrey. I am creating this woman! This is a subject we haven’t touched yet, and a fresh new thing for OWN. It’s being at the genesis of something that has the potential to be great, where people care about what you say and honor it.
Keith David: When Oprah calls, you accept. This is a wonderful opportunity. Not only have [you] never seen us in these parts, but this whole subject matter has rarely … been broached, and certainly not in this way. This is really about the reality of what happens in a family where the church is the family business.
Lamman Rucker: The fact that we could tell how rich this story was going to be, how rich the texture of the family—all the relationships we haven’t explored yet—there’s so many layers to this. I love ensemble work, too. It’s such a powerful construction for the story.
Clement Virgo (director): As a filmmaker, I was excited about the process of working in one of the first megachurch dramas. As someone who grew up in the church and someone who has gone away from God and come back to God, I felt like I had to do it.
Erica Anderson (writer): Having a church background, I hadn’t seen or heard anything like this before. It’s refreshing because it goes there. It’s a real and honest depiction of what goes on in the church and the things we don’t talk about. I wanted to be a part of it.
The Root: Merle, you play Grace, the leading lady of this show. It's a heavy character. How did you take this on?
Merle Dandridge: You’re asking the question. That’s been my journey. How do you go from suddenly being the recurring girl, the best friend, that thing, to suddenly being front and center, and on your first day of work you’re with Oprah Winfrey? It’s been such a journey of personal and artistic growth—a gainer of confidence and understanding of my instrument.
I had to make the shift clunkily in the beginning because as an artist and actor and singer, I always do 100 percent of the homework. I’ve had the gift of extraordinary actors who are willing to teach me. Keith, Lynn, Oprah, they’re heavyweights—they’re a master class every day. This is what I get to journey with—any actor in the world would die to be in my position. That’s how I know it’s not of me. There’s so much personal searching to step on set and feel like I belong there. I had to know I belong here.
The Root: Describe your castmates!
Kim Hawthorne: I’m the funny person!
LR: You think you’re the funny person? You are not!
KH: [Lamman’s] nickname is “professor.” He’s always dropping some knowledge on us. I’m the bringer of the truth. Lynn is the caretaker, Debra Joy is the cruise director—we hang out all the time, dinner, bowling. We call each other brother and sister.
LR: Merle is sweet and gracious; she’s a leader. That same kind of quality exists with Merle, Lynn, Joy and Ms. Winfrey.
KH: Everybody’s intelligent.
The Root: Ms. Whitfield, you said you've created Lady Mae. How?
LW: It’s not that one note that everyone says Lynn Whitfield plays. I always try to find the truth of each woman that I’m [depicting], that I am taking; who is she and how does she react? Lady Mae is very important because she’s the head of her family and she loves them, but she feels like she has the best idea of everything. We know that lady, right? She knows what is best for the family.
This woman’s legacy is the most important thing. Keeping the family and what they’ve gained is the most important thing. What happens when you’re as empowered as they are in a nondenominational church, you start to believe your own hype. Therefore, as we see so many people on their spiritual journey, they lose their way. If you know God, you know where to come back to it. There are 12 episodes, and you don’t even start to see what Lady Mae is made of in 7, 8, 9, 10 …
The Root: What is your favorite thing about being a part of this cast or on this show?
LR: There’s the big story that’s bigger than the Greenleaf family. Then there’s all these subplots; we could all have our own shows! The writing is strong. It’s meaty—that impressed me right from the beginning. This is real authentic relationships. Everybody can identify.
KH: You’re forced to keep watching because you never know where the story will end up next. You’re constantly engaged in storylines.
EA: There were a lot of conversations about certain subject matters. I wanted to create an honest depiction, and we all came from an honest place. That’s rare in this business, but that’s why this show is so great.
KD: Everyone is multifaceted, as human beings are. That’s something you haven’t seen in a series about our community—you get to see the diversity of who they are. There’s not just one type of black man in America. [There] never has been.
Greenleaf premieres on OWN over two nights: Tuesday, June 21, at 10 p.m. EDT/PDT and Wednesday, June 22, at 10 p.m. EDT/PDT. The series will air regularly on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT/PDT for the remainder of its 13-episode first season.
Watch the trailer below: