Oprah Winfrey Goes Behind the Megachurch Pulpit in 'Greenleaf'
"You've got to have sin or you don't have a show," Greenleaf," a new scripted drama set inside the scandalous behind-the-scenes world of a black megachurch that she's executive producing and acting in for her OWN network.
And who would know better than Oprah?
After all, during the course of her 25 legendary seasons as America's preeminent daytime talk show host and her journalistic career that preceded it, along with the empowering message of self-improvement she's long championed -- and often in tandem with it -- she's showcased her share of real-world stories involving crime, sin, corruption, scandal, dalliances, betrayals, selfish acts, foolish mistakes, falls from grace and all sorts of human frailties that derail people of every class and color.
So when the television icon has reconnected with her considerable dramatic roots -- she's been, after all, Oscar-nominated for her acting work in "The Color Purple," and was a producer on "Selma," among other prestige film and TV projects -- she recognized the rich reservoir of stories, both moving and provocative, that could be told about a fractured family at the center of a Southern church serving a large African-American congregation.
But as someone who's had her own church traditions loom large in her life, as Winfrey told guests at "Greenleaf's" L.A. premiere, the stories to be told were not any sort of indictment of religious institutions -- just an unflinching look at the personal test, trials, and transgressions of the Greenleaf family as they navigate their lives within the realm of a dynasty of spiritual service. Think a less flashy, more grounded iteration of "Empire," with sermonizing and soul-saving in place of hip-hop and hit-making.
"I've been hearing stories and been a part of stories and telling stories for as long as I can remember, since I first sat in church in Mississippi when I was three years old," said Winfrey, who joked that her recitations in the pews were the beginning of her broadcast career. "Church is my root, is my foundation, is my center, is my life, and everything that I am today came up out and through and within the structures of the black church."
She noted that as the series -- which centers around the prodigal-like return of Grace Greenleaf to her family's megachurch fold after a long absence following her sister's mysterious death, an event that prompts her to both reconnect with her brood and reopen long festering wounds -- developed, creator Six Feet Under," "Dirty Sexy Money"), who is white, brought a familial knowledge of the inner workings of a church to the table, but she frequently reminded him of the additional elements involved in traditional black churches.
"We're more than church. It is our community, our doctor, our nurse, our comforter, our psychiatrist," she said. "So I loved the idea to use that platform of the church, and made the church as a foundation for real storytelling about sin, because you don't have a good show without sin. Sinning, and all the issues that face everybody in their lives at one point or another -- jealousies, and betrayals, and lies, and deception, finding the truth, but most importantly, the truth of who you really are."
"That's what this series is about," Winfrey, who also plays a recurring role as Mavis McReady, Grace's aunt, who lives at a distance from the church community running a blues club, continued. "It's about people you know, about people you wish you didn't know. It's about things that happened in your life and the things you've seen happen in other people's lives. Being able to use this form of expression is really a glorified and sacred moment. So it's not just about television, but using television to say something meaningful."
Merle Dandridge, who plays Grace, said she recognized the sensitive and powerful writing when she read the first script. "That's how I knew that I was going to be in good hands," she said. "It's not tackling the church. It's being within the church and understanding what's going on in the church, and talking about the pros and cons of the church with love and affection for it.
"I also felt 'Well, it's about time,'" the actress added. "It's about time we talk about this topic. It's about time that things that might have hurt people that we shed light on and humanize those stories. Maybe somebody can get healed by it."
Dandridge said she's looking forward to seeing the conversation "Greenleaf" sparks among its viewers. "I think the dialogue that's going to start from this show is one of the wonderful things, and one of the reasons I wanted to do this show so much. Because when your work, when your art can create those kinds of conversations, when it can start people having a dialogue and an actual understanding amongst people who might be on polarized lines, I feel like that's art worthwhile, and that's the kind of art I've always wanted to do."
Keith David, who plays Grace's father and the church's spiritual patriarch Bishop James Greenleaf, feels the series is an eye-opening depiction of a world he recognized well. "I knew him," he said of the role. "When I read the script, I recognized him. I was raised in a church. I have lots of friends who are ministers. Having wanted to be a minister myself, I've been to a lot of churches. I've met this man. I recognized him immediately, and I loved him on the page."
"I believe that it's going to be wonderfully resonant for people," David said. "I think they're going to really like what they see."
"I thought this whole concept of the megachurch and nighttime drama smashed together was so interesting because I had never seen anything like it," said Kim Hawthorne, who plays Grace's ambitious, confrontational, and holier-than-thou sister-in-law, Kerissa. "People are really going to see that we're normal people, that the church is a church, a place of worship, but also a business, and that the first family has just as much drama and shenanigans going on as anyone who's coming to the church to worship."
"I'm not preaching to people," Winfrey told me. "But at the end of an episode, [if] you just go, 'Hmmm. Hmmm....' I'm just looking for 'Hmmm.' Three M's -- three M's, not five! Just "Hmmm. That's interesting. Yeah, what was that?' You know? So I'm trying to drop little whispers of light into people's lives."
"Greenleaf" premieres June 21st on OWN.