Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Studios recently kicked off promotion of season four for one of its hallmark shows, “Greenleaf,” with a press junket to Atlanta. The Crusader was among this select group, and we were able to look in on scenes that involved a few of the cast members, including Lamman Rucker, Lovie Simone and Desiree Ross, as we sat in the mansion where the fictional family lives.
Afterward, I had the pleasure of interviewing the three main female characters—veteran, elegant actress Lynn Whitfield, who plays the matriarch First Lady Mae Greenleaf; Chicago’s Roosevelt University Distinguished Artist Awardee Merle Dandridge, who plays Grace Greenleaf; and last, but not least, a member of the celebrated Winans’ Gospel family Deborah Joy Winans, who plays Charity Greenleaf.
First of all, I must report that I maintained my journalistic integrity and decorum—even among so much talent—both seasoned and new artists. Being on the set of “Greenleaf” was such an exciting event; it is sprawled out on vast acres of land in Lithonia, Georgia. There is so much to cover, and I will report on Dandridge and Winans in an upcoming column.
Season four finds the Greenleafs attempting to maintain a united front in the face of losing Calvary Fellowship Church to Bob Whitmore (Beau Bridges) and Harmony & Hope Ministries, but secrets past and present create what could be fatal fractures in the family’s fragile foundation. As season three wrapped up, the church was hurting, and there was all kinds of chaos going on—probably much like other churches around the country. But “Greenleaf” allows viewers to see it up close and personal.
Lady Mae and Grace form an uneasy alliance as they endeavor to reclaim their church from Harmony & Hope—Grace from within the church where she’s operating as interim head pastor and Lady Mae using her persuasive ways from the outside.
But Grace’s mission becomes complicated when a mysterious phone call sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to reveal her biggest secret yet. The Bishop (Keith David) continues working to mend his rift with Lady Mae, while day by day Harmony & Hope’s grip on Calvary tightens
Throughout the first three seasons, Whitfield’s character has always been as striking and present as her fabulous designer wardrobe. I asked her about the creation of the essence of Lady Mae and how her persona came about. “I’m a Southern woman, raised by Southern women,” Whitfield said. “I love beauty, clothes and style. Oprah [Winfrey], Craig Wright (award-winning writer/executive producer) and Clement Virgo (executive producer) allowed us to help craft these people and the story.” And humbly, Whitfield said: “In terms of dramaturge, I was able to bring my aesthetic to what I thought this woman [Lady Mae] should be.” She added that she was able to contribute a lot. “The role feels natural, as if I’m not acting. So, it probably feels tailor-made for me.”
And as fierce as First Lady Mae looks—even in scenes where she only speaks with her eyes—this fervor and meticulous attention to detail are very much needed in season four, as the Greenleafs unite to reclaim their church, which is located in Memphis.
“Lady Mae has a passion and a belief that the church should be theirs. She’s stepping into her purpose,” Whitfield said. When I asked about the rift between herself and her daughter Grace, which was so glaring in previous seasons and the importance of unity in season four, Whitfield replied: “I don’t want relationships to come before what it is I believe I should be doing. Grace isn’t operating out of resentment or trying to uncover truths about the family. It’s more so that she’s looking for what she can find out to protect the family interest.”
And although this family drama and the theme of the mega church were the recipient of much ridicule in the beginning, because of “unholy shenanigans” going on inside the church, Whitfield noted that it is still a business. “First of all, this is a family drama, and all of the characters are driven to achieve something,” she said. “It’s a powerful family whose family business happens to be a megachurch. In the end, I think people are pulling for the Greenleafs to be OK.”
Last season, “Greenleaf” was Wednesday night’s #1 original cable series for African-American women and total viewers and has averaged more than 2 million viewers in each of its three seasons. This season, “Greenleaf” will premiere on its new night Tuesday, September 3 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. (Chicago time 9 p.m.).