Originally filed Monday, August 27, 2018 by RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
During a cool March morning at the entrance of House of Hope Baptist Church in Decatur, R&B legend Patti LaBelle is shivering. A “Greenleaf” crew member drapes a robe over her between takes.
But once the cameras are rolling, LaBelle turns up the heat, playing a Type A Christian motivational speaker Maxine Patterson. Lady Mae Greenleaf (the steely Lynn Whitfield) has sought the advice of her old friend as she struggles with the dissolution of her marriage to pastor James Greenleaf (Keith David) following season 2 revelations of his expansive past infidelity with Lady Mae’s sister Mavis (Oprah Winfrey).
“We’re going to march the road girl and plant you a brand new one! Amen?” LaBelle’s character says, before jumping into her limo and taking a call from T.D. Jakes.
There are plenty of new roads for the characters of OWN’s “Greenleaf” when it returns Tuesday, August 28 at 10 p.m. as part of a two-night season three opener. And there are guest stars, too: Iyanla VanZant and Beau Bridges.
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In the opening minutes of the season three, Lady Mae evokes her first line to her daughter Grace (Merle Dandridge) from the very first episode two years ago about wondering if she was back in Memphis to “sow discord.” Indeed, since Grace’s arrival, coincidentally or not, Lady Mae’s carefully constructed world has fallen apart.
“You and my sister [Oprah’s character Mavis], you never had me until they is stewing in their own shame and sin,” Lady Mae said. “Grace, you don’t know the meaning of that word!”
“I didn’t make Zora run away. I didn’t make Kevin gay. And I certainly didn’t send Daddy out the door to Auntie,” said Grace, summarizing some key plot points from the first two seasons.
“You bang around this family like a bull in the china shop until everything is broken!” Lady Mae said, “acting like it’s God’s work.”
“In this family,” Grace said. “It is!”
Whitfield, in an interview on set in March, said this season is the culmination of the first two, a climactic battle for the soul (and leadership) of Greenleaf’s Calvary church. Lady Mae is also having issues with her own kids. And there’s that perpetual battle within herself.
“She’s growing up,” Whitfield said, “looking at the possibility of dispensable relationships she took 43 years to build. She is seeing that no matter how much she puts into her kids, she can’t make them be who she wants them to be. And she is dealing with her own pain and hurt and complications of being a molested young girl herself.”
And like many megachurches, the Greenleaf family faces its own reckoning with its finances and their own lavish lifestyle.
“I want to shine the light on the materialism of corporate religion,” Whitfield said. “It’s so deeply counter to Biblical teaching. .. The planes, the Rolls, the 30,000-square-foot houses. Who really needs that? What does it take to be a shepherd? That’s why I love doing this show. I feel like this show is of service.”
Whitfield also isn’t a fan of the cult of personality. “I want to be able to put forth be careful who you’re following. The Bible tells you man will disappoint you every time. The relationship you’re building is with God... I don’t care if it’s our pastor, a president, a lawyer or a doctor, you shall never place that man above us.”
Whitfield’s Lady Mae, though, has hardly become immune to her own ego. In one episode, she doesn’t take kindly to Iyanla VanZant, who plays herself providing therapy for one of Lady Mae’s daughters Charity (Deborah Joy Winans). When Lady Mae finds out VanZant had led Charity to blame Lady Mae for her issues, she tells VanZant she feels “bushwhacked.”
VanZant, who in real life deals with angry clients all the time, is not fazed.
“You didn’t ask me to come,” VanZant said calmly. “I’ll tell you this: when you get ready to deal with your pain, I vow that when you call, I’ll be here.”
In an interview after the scene, VanZant said she isn’t an actress by trade and mostly plays roles that are essentially versions of herself like this.
“It’s terror, human terror,” she said, of LadyMae’s misdirected anger toward her. “It’s easier for us to stay lost in the illusion we tell ourselves than face or confront the
thing we fear most.”
For Lady Mae, she said, it’s about being exposed, it’s about looking bad and being abandoned.
“Lady Mae is not present,” VanZant said, as if she were an actual person. “She’s present in her role and image. I think that’s very common place among leaders. They have to be who they think they have to be.”
In real life, VanZant doesn’t take on private clients anymore because she simply doesn’t have the time shooting her show. (Her most recent season of “Iyanla Fix My Life” was shot in Atlanta.) But in her off time, she does watch a fair share of TV, name-dropping OWN shows such as “Queen Sugar” and “The Haves and the Have Nots” as well as “Law & Order: SVU,” “Project Runway,” “Top Chef,” “Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars” and “Married at First Sight.”
LaBelle, who is best known as a singer but has done a fair share of acting (recent credits include “Empire,” “Daytime Divas” and “American Horror Story”), said she was honored to take on the role of Lady Mae’s muse for five episodes. “It was so comfortable working with Lynn,” she said. “I feel powerful with her, with Miss VanZant. It’s three powerful women, women that don’t play!
Maxine, she notes, encourages Lady Mae to divorce the Bishop and take over Cavalry, “giving her the power to know she can do whatever she puts her mind to.”
And given what happened with Oprah’s character last season, there’s a big question mark whether Mavis will be back at all season three - or ever. Whitfield, who spoke with me partway through production of the season, said, “We don’t know yet. I would guess if we get a few more seasons, there’d be a reason for her to come back.”
“Greenleaf,” season 3 debut on Tuesday, August 28 at 10 p.m. with episode two in its regular time slot of 10 p.m. Wednesday, OWN