I grew up in a two-religion household. Whether I was reading, cooking, or playing with my sister, my father’s prayers to Allah were often heard in the background. I can see him now; his freshly washed feet stepping gracefully on his prayer mat, his body folding deeply as his forehead touched the ground. The ritual of it all, his hands open, palms faced up, and his voice murmuring Arabic was always soothing to me. However, on Sundays, my mother dressed my sister and I up in lacy socks and velvety dresses, and the three of us drove across town to worship at a small Black Catholic church on the West Side of Chicago. This was the same church she’d attended as a girl. I can recall the scripture moving me sometimes, but it was always the songs that I looked forward to the most. By the time I hit puberty, we’d pretty much stopped attending church altogether, but my father’s faith remained a constant for him. As an adult, I’ve gone several times to one of the bigger churches in Harlem, but my attendance certainly hasn’t been regular. I’m not sure what it would take for me to return full-time.
OWN’s new scripted original series; “Greenleaf” is the story of woman’s return to the church and to her home. Away for many years, Grace Greenleaf heads home to Memphis, Tennessee following the death of her sister, Faith. She is quickly enfolded back into the Greenleafs household as well as their powerful mega church. Yet, Grace’s reasons for running away have persisted in her absence. Commanding and unwavering on the outside, the Greenleafs desperately try to cover the many cracks that could fracture their world, before Grace takes a sledgehammer to them; watching them splinter spectacularly.
Written and created by “Six Feet Under” scribe Craig Wright, and starring Merle Dandridge as Grace Greenleaf, Lynn Whitfield, Keith David, and Oprah Winfrey in a recurring role, “Greenleaf “ will debut on OWN June 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Though I am eager to share my thoughts on the first episode, I will have to wait until we get closer to the debut. Until then, here are some highlights from the cast and crew, including director, Clement Virgo, and writer, Erica Anderson discussing the show at the Tribeca Film Festival.
On Creating “Greenleaf”
Oprah Winfrey: I’m really excited, Craig [Wright] and I met when we were doing the series “Belief”, and we had a conversation about not just his background as a writer, but the fact that he spent a lot of time as a minster in a church. So, we had this conversation about church and what Black church in particular means to [the Black] community. We started going back and forth about it. He said, “That sounds like a series.” And I said, “I think it is”, and that’s how it started. Being able to do this series is a dream come true for me because, when I first started this network five years ago, every word that was written about OWN was the narrative of struggling network. Our team got together and had the dream of being able to do this kind of scripted television. That was really founded, because my friend Tyler Perry called me and said, “Listen I can write a series for you, and I can direct it, and I can do it cheaply, and I can help you start the idea of doing scripted.” So it is because of the foundation that Tyler laid for us at the network that we’re able to move into a “Greenleaf” and to come later this fall, a “Queen Sugar”.
On Story Itself
Craig Wright: What I keep telling people about this show is that, it’s not a soap, it’s not a sermon, it’s story about a women who returns home because she misses the family and the faith that she left behind. It doesn’t purport to be a portrait of any specific church or any specific community. It’s a story about a lost faith and an attempt to get it back by setting things right. And, it’s also about the obstacles and challenges that come in your way when you try to fix the system.
Merle Dandridge: When I first saw the script I was completely compelled to it, because I felt like I understood it. I know this world, and I felt like I understood these people. GG speaks to a question that a lot of us have in our hearts. We’re searching for how to express ourselves spiritually these days and/or if [we’ve] been in some way wounded by the actual institution of the church. People are looking for their own path or they’re looking for the way they want to get into God. I think in some way, we are all looking for that, so I was very moved by it.
Lynn Whitfield As Lady Mae Greenleaf
Lynn Whitfield: I saw the script and they said, well Craig Wright wants to talk to you, we’re really interested in you for this. I said, “Well why?” I didn’t know who Lady Mae was from what I saw. [Craig] said Oprah loves you, and wants you to do it.
Oprah Winfrey: You’re the only person I wanted to do it.
LW: Is that true?! That’s such an honor! What Craig promised me and what Clement [Virgo] promised me was that we would explore, and that it would be collaborative. And so, I’m discovering who she is in every episode and it’s very exciting. But what I loved is that this story is something we’ve not seen on television. This was not a story about racial problems (though race is mentioned) or financial difficulty. These people have to deal with themselves, and their lives, and their problems. And I just loved that it was so eloquently written along with the setting and everything. I went to a Pentecostal church for about seven years in Los Angeles and there were First Ladies that I met all over this country. I witnessed the welcoming of the First Lady, the grace of the First Lady, the whole pomp and circumstance. But one thing I did not do, was think that she as a joke or a caricature, because they are not. They are women who believe that they have to protect and take care of their institutions, and they have to set an example for women. There are First Ladies all over this country who are dong fanatic work for their communities and for women, so I did a composite of all of them.
[Lady Mae] never wants to lose control over anything, and thinks she has the answers to everything. She feels it from the moment Grace hits the steps, she knows that she’s a fighter and that she’s a rebel, and that she’s searching for the truth and that she’s gong to cause problems. She knows that her world is about to start churning and turning over. She says, “Promise me you’re not here to sew discord in the fields of my peace.”
Opening the Story with Grace Greenleaf
Clement Virgo: For me, it all started with Merle and with Grace, because she is our access point to the story. When we see her in that car, when she’s coming up to that house, if you don’t feel her, if you aren’t with her, we don’t have a series.
Merle Dandridge: In the very beginning, I was figuring out who Grace was, how she was going to come into this world. She doesn’t know that she’s coming back to turn things over. She just thinks she’s coming to pay her respects and to get out of dodge. She’s a grown woman, a woman who is successful in the world, and who has run away from this long enough. She’s taking all of this in and it’s stirring her pot until she just can’t be silent anymore, she must deal with this issue. She must turn over the tables; she must make the truth come to the surface.
Keith David As Bishop Greenleaf
Keith David: Having in my own life wanting to be a minster at one point, I was immediately fascinated. There is a Bishop Wright who I consulted in Memphis, and I talked to him about how Bishop Greenleaf is always able to use scripture to manipulate whatever he wants. And he said, “Oh I’m the one you want to talk to, because I know how to do that.” But it works both ways. There’s that wonderful time when the minister can speak to you, and quote some scripture and your life is changed in a wonderful way. And then, there is that time when he uses scripture and you realize he’s manipulated you. I think it’s marvelous, because the Preacher is just a man, with all of the frailties that humans have. And, we see that in this story with Bishop. He falls short of a lot of things in his family and in the church, but inherently I think he’s a good person.
On Bringing “Being Mary Jane” Writer Erica Anderson Onboard
Erica Anderson: I came on after the show had gotten the green light. What really drew me to the material was of course Craig’s wonderful writing, but also as a Christian myself, as someone who rose up in the church and who currently goes to church, it’s really an honest depiction of what the church life is like. It’s what church is like behind the scenes as well as on the stage on Sunday morning.
Oprah Winfrey: And we did that on purpose. Craig and I talked about this. We wanted someone in that room who is of African American decent, who was actually going to church on Sundays, and is communicating in the church, and who knows what all of the laws and nuances are.
Craig Wright: I think a problem when you try to depict religion in the white church is that it inevitably degenerates into either satire or sanctimony. I understand why, I’m not even going to argue with it, because it makes total sense. But what I love about this, working with this team and on this material, is that you can have characters that can be really articulate. These are really intelligent, highly educated people in a culture where language is valued. And, even though you are criticizing and questioning the faith, this show takes the faith really seriously and respects it. It doesn’t seem silly, it doesn’t seem laughable or foolish. It actually seems deeply important and integral to the lives of the characters. So you actually take their struggles seriously. As someone who has been involved in religion prior to this in life, to be given this opportunity though Oprah, being able to value religion but still be able to question it.
Lynn Whitfield: So often we are seeing that we are being disappointed by religion and disappointed by religious leaders. But what we get to say in this piece is that, it is not the messenger that you must follow. You have to continue to follow the message, and build your personal relationship, because we don’t know who we are following, and we need to question who we are following and what we really believe. So for me to be a part of a show that says you better keep your personal relationship with God together; it’s such an honor for me.
CW: Every human system is worthy of critique. I believe that the church and the synagogue and the mosque and everything else, there’s a little hole where something is leaking in from our external world and we need to criticize it, we need to question it, and we need to attack it, but we also need to respect the life that is still living in it waiting to express itself.
The Name “Greenleaf”
Craig Wright: I think it’s sort of multivalent. There are Bible versus that say if you follow money you will suffer, but if you follow God you’ll flourish like a green leaf. That’s definitely floating around in there. Also, the notion of green as money is floating around in there. : I was a minster when I got my first job on “Six Feet Under” Ever since then I’ve pretty much been saying the same thing over and over again on television, which is that money is dangerous and that you should live for the heart and the soul. I just think it’s a message that needs to be said all of the time. You can write a story in any milieu that you want to, and it’s always the right thing to say. It’s such a temptation to follow money, and it’s such a bad idea. I’ve always felt like this show was Grace coming in and just sweeping it all clean, and then the Bishop stepping forward and saying, “Wait! Look”, and then you see this little four leaf clover. Be careful what you destroy, because there is something tender and green here that wants to live.
“Greenleaf “ will debut on OWN June 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami