‘Greenleaf’: Oprah Winfrey’s New Series About a Megachurch’s Behind the Scenes Drama
Oprah Winfrey has spent a lifetime taking us by the hand and leading us to the light, and she’s still at it as the driving force—and one of the stars—of Greenleaf. The sudsy new OWN drama centers on the first family of an African-American megachurch in Memphis and has lots of talk about the Holy Spirit, much of it delivered in the majestic sermons of the clan’s powerful patriarch, Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David).
But pearl clutchers, be warned! This is also a rip-snorting saga of greed, blackmail, drugs, lurid infidelity and repressed homosexuality. And that’s just for starters. In the gospel according to Winfrey, love of the Almighty and scandalous sin are not mutually exclusive.
“It’s all part of the human condition,” Winfrey says. “The Greenleaf family is founded in Christianity, and they deeply believe in the power of God in their lives, yet at the same time they are majorly flawed people—people who can look the other way when horrible things are happening right under their noses.”
The series begins with the Greenleafs gathering for the funeral of middle daughter Faith, who supposedly committed suicide and is revealed to have been a longtime victim of sexual abuse. The perp is the church consigliere, Mac McCready (GregAlan Williams), who also happens to be the brother of the bishop’s control-freak wife, Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield), and her estranged sister, Mavis (that would be Winfrey).
Eldest daughter Grace (Merle Dandridge), a minister turned TV journalist who fled the family 20 years ago, returns home for the funeral, and she and Mavis are soon in cahoots. They are feverishly determined to bring down Mac, who is also suspected of molesting teenage parishioners yet continues to be warmly welcomed in the bishop’s home. This isn’t just storytelling, by the way. It’s Winfrey fixing something that’s bothered her for years.
“Over the course of The Oprah Winfrey Show I tackled countless issues, and the one I really failed at was sexual abuse,” Winfrey says. “I must have done 100 interviews with people who were molested and still did not get across the most important message—that abusers are actually seducers.” This time she gets it right. “In Greenleaf, we show the seduction process,” Winfrey says. “You will be immersed in how it happens, seeing it through the eyes of the abused and the abuser, and come to understand how an entire family can be seduced into overlooking it.”
Winfrey also sees Greenleaf as “an opportunity to examine how the church views gay men and particularly what it means to be gay in the black church.” The youngest Greenleaf daughter, wannabe preacher Charity (Deborah Joy Winans, of the famed music family), is married to closet case Kevin (Tye White), whose idea of a hot night is snuggling up to watch The Bachelor.
“I am an equal opportunity provoker,” admits series creator Craig Wright, a former divinity student whose TV-scribe credits include Six Feet Under and Lost. “I’m interested in both the hypocrisy of the church and those who insist there is no value in this cherished institution. Because at the heart of the church—despite all the errors we human beings make—there is still great beauty.”
Dandridge seconds that emotion. “This show will trigger some delicious watercooler talk,” the actress says. “Beyond all the fun and frothy soap opera, we hit on a lot of hot-button issues. But we’re not just pointing fingers or wagging them in people’s faces in order to start arguments. We want to start real conversations.”
Oh, they’ll be talking all right, especially when the bishop’s unhappily married son, Jacob (Lamman Rucker), is late to join the family on stage for a church service because he’s busy shtupping Daddy’s sexy white secretary in a room off the chapel. “Life for the Greenleafs is filled with messy, split-second mistakes, and the audience will relate,” Dandridge says. “OK, not everybody has sex in church, but we can all empathize with characters who are sincerely trying to do better in this world but keep falling down.”
The Greenleafs aren’t just holier than thou—they’re also wealthier. Grace stays in Memphis to resume her work as a minister, just as the Feds begin investigating the bishop for using his tax-exempt status to bilk parishioners. She’s also horrified to learn that her father has accepted $50,000 from a pair of redemption-seeking churchgoers who won the Powerball.
“There is nothing in the Bible that says we have to be poor,” David notes. “The famous passage ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God’ has less to do with how much money you have than how you let that money affect you. And that’s the big question with the Greenleafs. What has all their millions done to them?”
Don’t dare bring up the topic to Lady Mae. “She loves her mansion and her private jet and feels completely entitled to them,” Whitfield says. “It took her and Bishop 40 years to build this life of privilege, and she won’t let go, and it all speaks to the materialism of the church and the corporate nature of religion. We need to look at these things in our country.”
And still keep it juicy as hell. “When I launched OWN [in 2011], I intended to use it as a teaching platform,” Winfrey says. “And then I got a big punch in the face. I found out people don’t come to television to be taught. They come for a good time.” Greenleaf, she says, “is the result of me lightening up. This series has substance and soul, but we’re not knocking you over the head with anything. We are here to entertain.”
Greenleaf, Series Premiere, Tuesday, June 21, 10/9c, OWN.