Photo: Lynn Whitfield and Merle Dandridge on season 5 of "Greenleaf"
Photo: Lynn Whitfield and Merle Dandridge on season 5 of "Greenleaf"

‘Greenleaf’: saying goodbye with Merle Dandridge, Lynn Whitfield, Craig Wright

Craig Wright wrote for the well-respected HBO series “Six Feet Under,” a family drama set at a funeral home which concluded in 2005 after just five seasons with a much heralded finale.

A decade later, Wright met with Oprah Winfrey for dinner to discuss her network OWN’s first non-Tyler Perry scripted drama, “Greenleaf” and how many seasons might work for Wright, the creator.

“Counter-intuitive as it might seem in a business where you’re supposed to make money for the sake of money,” Wright said, “I told her I thought ‘Greenleaf’ should also go five seasons.”

Winfrey didn’t blink an eye. She agreed. 

So starting June 23, the final eight episodes of season five will air on OWN, each hour covering about a single day until the series finale. Both seasons four and five were shot consecutively last year in metro Atlanta, much of it out of Eagle Rock Studios in Norcross. 

>>RELATED: My interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2016 about “Greenleaf”

“Greenleaf” was such a passion project for Winfrey, her network renewed it for a second season before the first one even aired. She also played a Greenleaf family member, a tough-as-nails jazz club owner Mavis McCready, for a few episodes the first two seasons before her character moved out of Memphis. 

“This show came about with many conversations between me and Oprah,” Wright said, “with me doing a lot of listening. She’s got stuff to say and I’ve been happy to help say it.” 

Like “Six Feet Under,” “Greenleaf” is a drama set around the family business - in this case, a Black megachurch in Memphis. And like “Six Feet Under,” the show opens when an estranged family member returns home for a funeral of another family member. 

In the first minutes of the series in 2016, Lady Mae Greenleaf - played with steely resolve by Lynn Whitfield - sees the arrival of her daughter Grace (Merle Dandridge) warily.

Four years later, Whitfield can still quote the line Lady Mae says to Grace: “Promise me, you’re not here to sow discord in the fields of my peace.” 

Of course, there’d be no show if Grace, a journalist by trade, doesn’t sow acres of discord. She exposes family secrets and by season four, ends up revealing a major one of her own: a son she gave up for adoption two decades earlier, fathered by the church’s chief of security. 

“It’s Grace’s job to ask questions all the way to the end,” Wright said. “Of course, those questions are turned back on her. You can’t come of age in a system that’s poisoned by silence and secrets and not have some secrets yourself.”

The Greenleafs as a family suffer a lot over the first four seasons, punctuated by the murder season two of a creepy, rapist uncle, played with unctuous precision by GregAlan Williams. Son Jacob (Lamman Rucker) becomes lead preacher for a rival church with a beef against Cavalry. Lady Mae and her husband Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) almost divorce. 

Photo: Keith David and Lynn Whitfield play Bishop James Greenleaf and Lady Mae Greenleaf on “Greenleaf.” CR: OWN

During season three, the  Greenleafs end up losing control of Cavalry Church to Bob Whitmore (Beau Bridges), a White owner of multiple White megachurches who takes over Greenleaf’s church. Last season, the family attempted to maintain some level of control, but by the time season five begins, only baby sister Charity (Deborah Joy Winans) remains connected to what is now called Harmony & Hope and is seen as a traitor by many family members
“We spent a lot of time critiquing the Black church,” Wright said. “What I wanted to do before we finished the story was bring White Christianity into the mix. Even though Black churches have problems, all institutions have problems. And the White church certainly has a history of racism. I wanted to put everything in perspective and affirm the Black church as a unique creation of God. It was a way to find a positive by imagining an even more problematic negative.”

Photo: Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) spars with Bob Whitmore (Beau Bridges). CR: OWN

And having intrinsically charming Emmy-winning actor Bridges as Whitmore was casting gold, Wright said. “He has a history of being charming,” Wright said. “That very much served our purposes. And not to be too fancy about it but he brings with him a legacy of old White Hollywood. So it works on multiple levels in a very helpful way.”

Some of the most fascinating scenes happened between Bridges and Whitfield when the looks and pauses meant just as much as what was being said out loud. “Beau is very present,” Whitfield said. “I knew that when the cameras are on, he comes to play. So do I. I was about to get in the sandbox to build some castles or bring out the pitchforks.” 

For Grace, the show’s chief protagonist, season five will be about her “forgiving herself and coming to peace with her family and the church as a whole,” Wright said.

Dandridge has loved her character’s growth. “She is always open to God leading to do the right thing. It was the right thing for her to drop everything and stay in Memphis. It was the right thing for her to take the pulpit again.” 

Personally, she added, “‘Greenleaf’ has fully changed my life as an artist and as a woman and all the things it afforded me to do for my family, my healing and my own personal journey.”

And she is thrilled to see the Greenleaf family, despite the loss of their church, won’t go quietly into the night. 

“When you’re in a collective car crash,” she said, “you have to pivot and find new purpose and meaning within that. When you are true to that and follow it faithfully, good things can come out o fit.”

Photo: Grace (Merle Dandridge) with AJ (Jacob Gibson) on "Greenleaf." CR: OWN

As season five starts, Lady Mae and the Bishop have rebuilt their marriage and even Lady Mae and Grace have found a surprising equilibrium after years of tension in part because of the arrival of Grace’s no-longer secret son AJ. 

“For the evolution of these very strong women, it can mirror the audience,” Dandridge said. “We may hold on to a lot of generational pain in ourselves and our families. But at some point, you have to stop running from it and start examining it. It doesn’t mean they’re best friends and thick as thieves. But they are evolving and appreciating that they are cut from the same cloth.”

Though Lady Mae hasn’t always taken the kindest actions over the years, Whitfield sees her as “a good woman. She has chosen to embrace her grandson. And she sees in her daughter someone who has made missteps just like she has, missteps that have long-term consequences.” 

The show built a solid following on OWN over the years but found a whole new world of viewers after being added to Netflix this past November.

“Its viewership has extended far beyond the race and gender of the average OWN viewer,” which is heavily Black and female, Wright said. “It makes me feel real proud to be a part of it.”

Dandridge said the show “stretches across cultural boundaries. Its reach and relatability is much farther than I expected and I think we’ll continue to be surprised by its universality and how meaningful it is outside the faithful Black church audience.”

Whitfield believes the show will “stand the test of time. My prayer is that people will be streaming ‘Greenleaf’ for a long time to come. I think it’s a classic in its very nature.”

And she thinks the series finale, in a world grappling with a worldwide pandemic and social change, will be “even more profound than if everyone was just planning regular summer vacations. It goes extremely deep.”

In fact, OWN is now considering a spin-off show connected to “Greenleaf” but Wright said it’s way too early to know what the connection will be. 

“It’s like that moment between Good Friday and Easter Sunday,” Wright said. “It’s going to be quiet for a little while, then boom! Something big will happen! It’s exciting!”

Whitfield said she has no idea if she’ll be in the spinoff but whatever Wright comes up with she believes will honor the original show.

“I have never had a partnership with a writer and creator like we have,” she said. “He says a word and I can finish it. I’d tell him if there was a line I didn’t think Lady Mae would say. Within 15 minutes, he had something better. The collaboration is amazing. I trust his judgment.”

And for folks wondering if Winfrey’s character Mavis will ever come back on the show, Wright revealed that yes, she will be in season five, likely toward the end. 

“Mavis is a truth teller,” Wright said. “And just as in a Greek tragedy, the tragedy can’t end until the chorus comes back on stage. I would say the ‘Greenleaf” saga could never end without Mavis making a reappearance.”

Photo: Mavis (Oprah Winfrey) with her sister Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield) on "Greenleaf." CR: OWN

ON TV

“Greenleaf,” season five returns at 9 p.m. Tuesday on OWN

The first four seasons are available on Netflix

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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