Merle Dandridge On Her First Leading Role in “Greenleaf”

Merle Dandridge in the Oprah Winfrey Network’s (OWN) new original series, Greenleaf. Dandridge plays Grace Greenleaf. (Photo courtesy of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.)
Merle Dandridge in the Oprah Winfrey Network’s (OWN) new original series, Greenleaf. Dandridge plays Grace Greenleaf. (Photo courtesy of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.)

by Mitzi Uehara Carter

Merle Dandridge started her career on Broadway with leading roles in “Spamalot,” “Aida,” ‘Rent,” “Tarzan,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Not only does she have singing chops, she shines on screen. Dandridge — who is biracial with an African American father and Korean and Chinese mother —  has been cast in recurring roles on television shows including “The Night Shift,” “CSI: Miami” and “Stalker.”

Dandridge has also broken into a field that is gaining more serious attention from actors — video games. Female actors can often find well developed, complex characters in narrative-led gaming roles. This year, she won BAFTA’ best performer for her role in the popular post-apocalyptic Playstation game, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.”

I spoke with Dandridge about her starring role in the upcoming original drama series, “Greenleaf,” on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which debuts June 21, 2016. This is her first lead role on a television series. Dandridge talked to me via phone from Los Angeles about this new summer drama that is chock-full of award-winning actors and writers.

The trailer for “Greenleaf” is riveting. Can you tell me a little about your role and how you got involved in this OWN drama series?

My character, Grace Greenleaf, is basically a prodigal daughter coming home. She’s coming home to a wealthy megachurch in Memphis but in the midst of this homecoming, and she finds there is corruption, a lot of adultery, and abuse. There are a lot of hot-button issues. Grace is a preacher’s daughter and because of certain events that happened to her sister, Grace tried to intervene but was shot down numerous times. Ultimately she could not abide by what was happening so she left the ministry and became a successful journalist, constantly on a search to elucidate the truth. She comes back after 20 years and believes foul play is at hand with her sister’s death and realizes that she is the only one who can fix the issues. She decides to stay and fight the fight.

Were these themes foreign to you? Did you grow up in a church family, and were you familiar with some of the issues of ministry, especially in African American communities?

My father’s family [members] are big Memphis church folks. The Dandridges are heavily involved in the church there. I like to say it is my spiritual heritage. I was raised in Nebraska. My mother went to Korean Catholic church, and my father went to non-denominational, no-instrument Church of Christ. I feel like my background made me sympathetic to the idea of different religions. I have found my own spiritual path that I practice here in LA so these were not at all foreign.

I know there are quite a few people already buzzing about this drama just based on the expanded trailer recently released. What kind of conversations do you hope they might generate?

I hope it encourages good conversations. The way Grace comes in and brushes everything out is intense. It’s like she takes a power blower and blows out all bad and ugly stuff. And there’s moment in the storyline when the Bishop warns Grace to slow down because there is a tender green leaf growing in the midst of her clean-up job and to be careful not to clear out all the ugliness. He warns her not to discount this beautiful thing trying to happen here. I think it’s a great way for modern people try to view the church. There are a lot of beautiful things that the church likes to do, even if there are troubles. This drama looks at these kinds of complexities. I hope this encourages conversations especially for people who might have been wounded by the church. And for people to have hope in their own spiritual relationship with God or whatever they are looking for. You know, some of these institutions can be flawed and I hope people are encouraged to talk about the intentions of particular people within it and the greater good many members aim for the institution to do in the end.

There are some contentious issues that we discuss from abuse to police brutality. I hope these storylines can generate a healing conversation rather than hurt further. I think this show can be good water cooler show — where people can get together to discuss the topics in meaningful ways.

Was it a big switch to go from the big Broadway shows like “RENT” and “Aida” to a TV drama series like this one?

Yes! On Broadway, you’re on a 4-6 week rehearsal process to find the character, and eventually, like an athlete you find yourself becoming a technician. The TV series was very satisfying and also very exhausting and the intense subject matter would sometimes turn me inside out but it’s truly wonderful work with absolutely wonderful people — everyone — the cast, the crew, the writers.

Ok, Merle. I’m Black and Asian and I have to tell you I did a little happy dance when I learned your mother is Asian and your dad is Black American? And you were born in Okinawa where my mom is from. Seriously now. I’m so psyched you’re Black Asian. Can you tell me a little about growing up with this very particular mixed background?

You’re kidding me? I don’t know others of that mix. How interesting! My mother is half Japanese and Korean. And I have older siblings who are mostly Korean, 1/4 Japanese, because of my mom’s first marriage to a Korean man. I was born in Okinawa but most of my time in Asia was in Seoul. My mother belongs to two cultures that didn’t really accept her 100 percent. So she had this understanding of rejection based on her own experiences. She would look at me and say, “You are of different ethnicities and you might not always be accepted so go into the world knowing that and know that you are more than that. You are beautiful.” And in many ways she instilled a sense of who I was and gave me ways to encounter fears of not being fully accepted. And in Nebraska as one of the only ones [mixed Asians], I think it was a good exercise in becoming a good person because I think I had to be above the confusion, the potential rejections.

Do you find yourself being drawn into the expanding definition of what it means to be Asian American, even as a mixed Black Asian American?

I don’t exactly look Asian but once people find out, it’s like, “Come on over, and join the club!” I sometimes joke that I will start a kimchi and collards collective. My culture is very much a mixture.

I like these new terms that are being used today too like what you said — Blasian, Black Asian. I like that they are in our vernacular. For me it’s interesting to see this new mixed generation because they are born into time that embraces their beauty. They are born into time where they can put their shoulders back and swagger a bit. I find it stunning and see how people look at them and I wish I could say back to my teenage self, “Hey, you are right! You are beautiful and you are spectacular.”

So did working on this series give you any ideas for directing or writing your own TV series in the future?

It’s funny that you ask that. While working the show, I spent a lot of time saying other’s words and ideals and they were intense. When I finished the series, I was left with many of my own thoughts. Grace Greenleaf has a lot to say but so does Merle Dandridge. That’s actually where the kimchi and collards project started percolating. My parents had such rich stories. The things that have happened my mother and father are so steeped in my heart and life — with my mother being a survivor of two wars and my father’s story and what he’s gone through. I am definitely inspired to take time to sit at the piano and play again but also to reflect on the personal narratives and write.

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Mitzi Uehara Carter is a professor of Anthropology and East Asian Studies at Florida International University. She writes on Blackness, mixed race issues and Okinawa in her blog “Grits and Sushi.” She is currently working on her book about her mother and militarization in Okinawa.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.