Oprah Winfrey hopes to ‘lift consciousness’ with TV’s ‘Greenleaf’
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NEW YORK — Sex. Lies. Greed. Addiction. Infidelity. All the things you’d expect from a show about a staunchly religious family.
“Greenleaf,” executive produced by and co-starring Oprah Winfrey, lands on the former daytime queen’s OWN channel June 21. But on Wednesday, the Tribeca Film Festival offered a sneak preview of the new drama series’ first episode, in which a former preacher named Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) returns to her family’s opulent Memphis estate so she can bury her sister, a suicide victim.
Before she even sets foot in the door, tensions arise and secrets start to spill. The most sinister: An uncle (Gregory Alan Williams) whom Gigi and her boozing aunt Mavis (Winfrey) believe to be a pedophile.
The season opener brims with melodrama, introducing various members of Gigi’s affluent family including her megachurch bishop father (Keith David), jealous sister (Deborah Joy Winans), unfaithful brother (Lamman Rucker) and calculating sister-in-law (Kim Hawthorne). Mistresses, former flames and Adderall-snorting teens also appear throughout the episode, although there’s more to “Greenleaf” than shock value.
“It’s not a soap, it’s not a sermon, it’s a story about a woman who returns home because she misses the family and the faith she left behind,” creator Craig Wright (“Dirty Sexy Money”) said in a panel following the screening. “It’s a story about lost faith and an attempt to get it back by setting things right, and all the challenges and obstacles that come your way when you try to fix the system.”
Wright, a onetime minister and Chicago playwright, hatched the idea with Winfrey one day as they talked about church’s significance in the black community. Clement Virgo (“The Book of Negroes”) joined them as an executive producer and director of the series, filmed in Atlanta, which has a 13-episode order and is OWN’s latest effort to beef up scripted programming.
“Being able to do this series is a dream come true for me,” Winfrey says. “When I started this network five years ago, the narrative for OWN was ‘struggling, struggling, struggling.’ ” She credits Tyler Perry, who has multiple shows on the channel, for helping steer the ship. “It is because of the foundation that Tyler laid for us that we’re able to move into a ‘Greenleaf,’ and to come later this fall, a ‘Queen Sugar,’ ” executive-produced by Ava DuVernay.
“Greenleaf’s” producers were joined onstage at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center by cast members such as Lynn Whitfield, who plays malevolent matriarch Mae Greenleaf. The actress said she was attracted to the show because it’s “not a story we’ve seen on television. It was not about racial problems or financial difficulty — the people you just met have to deal with themselves.”
Winfrey further drove home the importance of good storytelling, adding that with projects such as “Greenleaf,” she hopes to “lift the consciousness.
“All of my work is about the same thing,” she said. “It’s about showing people new ways of seeing themselves, and seeing the problems and flaws and dysfunctions that we all have, and shining a little light on that.”