By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
As fans all over are settling in for Season Four of “Greenleaf,” I would like to share with Crusader readers a bit more insight into two other main female characters—Chicago’s Roosevelt University Distinguished Artist Awardee Merle Dandridge, who plays Grace Greenleaf, and a member of the celebrated Winans’ Gospel family Deborah Joy Winans, who plays Charity Greenleaf.
Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Studios, which airs the series, kicked off promotion of Season Four with a press junket to Atlanta. The Crusader was among this select group, and this is Part 2 of my column about this family drama about a Black megachurch in Memphis.
The Greenleafs must pull it all together, and Charity Greenleaf is expected to cooperate, even though she has felt slighted since her sister, Grace, returned home.
“I have been an estranged character, and it has been hard. All Charity ever wanted was for her family—in particular her mother and father—to see her; to not just say, you just sing.”
And while she comes from a famous singing family—her father is one of the Winans’ siblings—singing isn’t Winans first love. “I never wanted to sing, acting is what I have wanted to do since I was a kid,” she said. Given that, she said that she felt it was God’s doing that she was cast as a worship leader in the drama. Winans was part of an acting workshop in New York and caught Winfrey’s eye. “She mentioned me to the network, and no one knew who I was,” Winans said, while expressing gratitude for the results. “I had been trusting God to open the doors, and he has.”
And whether singing while she’s acting or vice versa, Winans’ character will further define herself this season. “She recognizes what it is she wants, and she’s not backing down. [Her sentiment is] I have got to do what is best for me because you guys are going to do what is best for you,” Winans said, referring to the other Greenleafs. “I’m not going to sit on the sidelines anymore!”
One of the Greenleafs to whom Winans refers is Grace, played by Dandridge.
In the Season Four opener, it’s revealed that Grace has been chosen to lead the new church, although the task of reclaiming the family’s church is going to take teamwork—not a team that sees a lot of “me.” Dandridge explained: “There have been some fractures, and necessity can be the mother of invention,” she said. “Perhaps God put this in the family’s life for just that purpose. They had to deal with each other and work together. When you have faith and you trust, He can take a negative and make it into the most beautiful thing.”
Dandridge is a graduate of Roosevelt University who got her start on the Chicago theatre scene while attending its theatre program. She has also done previous television work and was recently honored with the university’s 2018 Chicago College of Performing Arts Distinguished Artist Award. About that recognition, she said: “There is a precious and sweet satisfaction in hearing ‘job well done’ from the university that first invested in my potential, then backed it up by giving me a tool box full of gifts to ensure my success.”
These tools have taken her far, and she’s as honored that another Chicago icon, Winfrey, recognized her talent. “I was on another series and just auditioning. I sent something on tape, and I received an email from Oprah,” Dandridge said. She added that the process went smoothly, and Oprah (who plays her aunt in “Greenleaf”) made her feel at ease during their scenes together. “She has a great ability to disarm the room. And when she puts on her acting hat, I feel like I’m sitting with my auntie.”
For more of the exciting action, tune in. 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” airs on its new night Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT. (Chicago time 9 p.m.).