Complicated. Committed. Determined. Those are just some of the words the cast of OWN’s new series Greenleaf uses to describe their characters. Now add scandalous, dubious and self-serving, and you have a pretty well-rounded description of what to expect from the show, which tells the story of the first family of one of the biggest and most well-known (fictional) churches in Memphis, Tennessee. But while Greenleaf may seem like Dynasty reincarnated, with all the juicy drama going down in and around a megachurch instead of a mansion, its executive producer and co-star Oprah Winfrey reveals it’s so much deeper than a soap opera.
“For me, it’s another platform in order to really offer the message that we’re more alike than we are different,” she tells EBONY.com. “Offer the message that being grounded in knowing what you believe is important. I’m not trying to tell you what to believe or how to believe … the important thing is that you are allowed to express it however it is most valuable to you.”
And to Winfrey, Greenleaf is rooted in a mission she’s had since the beginning of her career.
“All my life I’ve been trying to use the word and words as a way of saying to the audience, ‘Here’s a way to look at yourself, and can you see you in this picture? Here’s a way out, here’s a way up, here’s a way through and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are or what you’ve been through, there’s always a way out, a way up and a way through,'” Winfrey explains. “And this is just another platform for being able to do that and say that in a really collaborative, fun way through actors and art.”
Greenleaf’s cast is a mix of veterans and newcomers to the small screen. Heading up the church’s first family are Keith David and Lynn Whitfield as Bishop James and Lady Mae Greenleaf. The two bring their award-winning acting chops and Broadway prowess to the meaty roles in which both meander between benevolent and full of bravado.
In what may be her breakout role, Merle Dandridge stars as the Greenleafs’ prodigal daughter Grace, who returns home after 20 years to attend her sister’s funeral. Once back, Merle is reunited with her two other siblings–sister Charity (Deborah Joy Winans) and her too-good-to-be-true husband, and a brother Jacob (Lamman Rucker) and his cantankerous wife–who are both dealing with their own personal woes, which seem to be aggravated by being the children of a famous bishop.
Winfrey stars as Aunt Mavis, Lady Mae’s sister–and a backslider in the church’s eyes–who owns a bar and apparently holds all the family secrets. It’s a role the media mogul says she patterned after her friend and mentor, the late Maya Angelou. Mavis serves as Grace’s confidante, and the estranged Greenleaf daughter is determined to drag family’s skeletons out of the closet with her aunt’s help. Unfortunately, Grace has to go to battle with Uncle Mac (Gregory Alan Williams) if she hopes to see the truth exposed.
With so much going on, it might be tempting to believe creator Craig Wright mirrored chunks of Greenleaf’s story after another famous bishop, T.D. Jakes–after all, he is one of Oprah’s favorite ministers. But don’t get it twisted: The Greenleafs’ dysfunctional drama has nothing to do with Jakes. Winfrey even called up her pal to make it crystal clear once news of the show began to spread.
The media mogul says she broke it down to Bishop Jakes like this: “I just want you to know, from my lips to your ears that I have nothing but deep respect and regard for the church. I, Oprah Winfrey, am going to do nothing ever that disrespects the church,” she told the famous pastor. “I am who I am, where I am, sitting here today because of the Black church. But there’s some people in the church with some flaws. We might be talking about that. But it has nothing to do with you.”
Greenleaf didn’t just pluck a bishop out of real life and drop him into its make believe world of pulpit drama; some of the show’s storylines are inspired by current headlines as well. The Black Lives Matter movement has been an inescapable thunderclap across America, and you can best believe those living in the world of Greenleaf are touched by it., too. The show will deal with the issue from a theological, and more pointedly, a Black church’s point of view.
“The show takes on all the things that are happening in the world today and obviously there is that issue of young Black people being shot by the cops,” explains executive producer and director Clement Virgo. “We felt it was incumbent on us as a show to also speak to that and explore that. In one of the episodes we have a dynamic where the church is divided.”
Creating a nuanced story was also important to Winfrey , but she also isn’t in the business of beating viewers over the head to deliver a message. In bringing forth the drama, she wanted to, above all, do one specific thing: be worthy of your time.
“We all wanted to create, first and foremost something that would be entertaining because that’s what we’re trying to do, is to entertain you. And to get you to watch us. But to we worthy of your time. One of the things that was really important to me when I started this network,” she says.
She adds, “I was thinking about the kinds of things I would create. I wanted to be worthy of your time. So that in addition to coming away feeling like, ‘Wow, that was something; that was sexy, or that was fun or that was great,’ there’s just a little piece of light that got dropped where you think about something in a different way.”
Not only does Greenleaf mark Winfrey’s triumphant return to scripted television, it also serves as another opportunity to give her something that her ubersuccessful job as a talk show host could never fulfill.
“I think being able to act is away to lose myself and really be submerged into the ideas and consciousness of someone else. Sometimes it’s a relief and sometimes it’s exhausting as in the scene that Lynn and I had together,” she says. “I learned a lot about myself in the scene that Lynn [Whitfield] and I had together. And it’s very different because it’s the exact opposite of being myself.”
“My whole career has been founded on just being true to myself,” Winfrey opines. “I’m one of the most blessed people in the world because I got paid a lot of money just to be myself, and acting is the opposite of that. It’s trying to find a way to use yourself to become someone else. To use your pain, your anger, your emotional countenance to allow yourself to emerge with some other energy. It’s at its best, I think, when you literally merge with the energy or the spirit of that thing you’re trying to create, so it’s really very different and, in many ways for me, like a vacation from myself. I love the experience of it. I find it really stimulating, and it opens me up in ways that just being myself does not.”
Whitfield also enjoyed playing opposite Winfrey, even though many of their shared scenes found the pair doing battle.
“When it was time for my close up, it was like, ‘I am really about to lean in and kick Oprah Winfrey’s ass right now,'” she tells EBONY.com.
“In that moment, [I realized] how much I revered Oprah from the first thing we did together, The Women of Brewster Place. . . . This is our third project, and seeing all she’s done and all of her being one of the hardest-working women I really know, honestly, so to get my awe out of the way and remind myself as an actress this is my rival, she is turning my daughter against me, she’s coming in the middle, she’s revealing things with my husband, she’s revealing things with my brother, I had to get everything else out of the way and really want her to stop. And we went there … it was like, ‘I don’t know what happened, but I just went for her throat!’”
The result will have fans begging for more.
Greenleaf ‘s Season 4 will premiere on its new night, Tuesday, September 3 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.