The drama about a family that runs a mega church in Tennessee is edgier and earthier than the Tyler Perry sudsers that OWN has had success with in the past two years. It’s also the first scripted series to feature Winfrey in the cast. The series, which bows June 21, had its premiere Wednesday evening at the Tribeca Film Festival. OWN has already renewed the Lionsgate TV drama for a second season.
“Being able to do this series is a dream come true,” Winfrey told the crowd after the screening. “Back when the narrative (for OWN) was we were the struggling, struggling, struggling network, I had a dream of being able to do this kind of scripted television. On the foundation that Tyler laid for us at the network we are able to move into a ‘Greenleaf’ and later this fall, ‘Queen Sugar.’ ”
Created by playwright Craig Wright, “Greenleaf” is an unvarnished look at a family led by a charismatic Bishop (played by Keith David) who has plenty of demons in his immediate family and a fierce and cunning wife (played by Lynn Whitfield). Merle Dandridge plays the daughter who left the fold years ago to become an investigative reporter but returns home after the mysterious death of her sister. Winfrey plays the sister of Whitfield’s character who is estranged from the family and instigates an investigation that could have devastating results for the church.
Wright was a minister in a Christian church before shifting gears into a career as a playwright and TV writer. “Greenleaf” is an effort to take a critical look at institutions and personalities of religion while probing the deeper questions faith and belief in higher powers.
“It’s a story about a lost faith and an attempt to get it back by setting things right,” Wright said of Dandridge’s character.
The setting of a black church was important for Wright, who is white.
“When you try to depict religion in the white church it inevitably degenerates into satire or sanctimony,” he said. In “Greenleaf,” he has characters who can naturally be articulate and demonstrative about their faith. “Even though you’re criticizing and questioning, this show takes faith seriously. It takes their struggles seriously,” Wright said. He called it a gift to be able to “dramatize it in a way that doesn’t devalue it.”
Winfrey said she sees “Greenleaf” as part of her larger mission to use television as a kind of pulpit.
“As big as the dream that God has held for me things get even bigger and better,” she said. “My real role on earth is to lift the consciousness, to use the platform of television to show people new ways of seeing themselves and seeing the problems and the flaws and the dysfunctions we all have.”
Whitfield said she was eager to be involved with a show that deals with religion in an uncompromising way.
“We are so often disappointed by religion and religious leaders,” she said. She hopes the series helps get across the message that “it’s not the messenger you must follow. You have to continue to follow the message. For me to be part of a show that says you better keep your personal relationship with god together — it’s such an honor for me.”
(Pictured: Oprah Winfrey and Lynn Whitfield)