The lead actress in a hit television show and a Broadway-bound musical, Merle Dandridge began her journey to Hollywood from theater. Not just another pretty face, the fortysomething actress paid dues before landing the role of Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf in the Oprah Winfrey Network drama series Greenleaf, starring opposite the extraordinarily gifted and talented Lynn Whitfield (Lady Mae Greenleaf) and Keith David (Bishop James Greenleaf), who portray her parents. The drama is about a black church, and the family that runs it.
This fall, Dandridge will return to Broadway to star in the musical revival of Once On This Island, also starring Lea Salonga, Phillip Boykin, Alysha Deslorieux, Kenita R. Miller, Isaac Powell, newcomer Hailey Kilgore (in her Broadway debut), and others. Michael Arden will direct the Tony Award-nominated show, which features music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and premieres November 9 at the Circle In The Square Theatre.
Winfrey’s selection of Dandridge for the Greenleaf role was unlike the process used to cast Keith David, Lynn Whitfield, and Deborah Joy Winans. Winfrey hand-picked David and Whitfield and had seen Winans in the early stages of a workshop performance of BeBe Winans’ musical, Born for This. Dandridge was an unknown to Winfrey and was introduced via an audition tape, which she viewed on her iPad.
“Never discount the pre-read or the taped audition because you never know where the tape will end up,” Dandridge advises. “I received the ten-page script and went in with the casting director. This is how I know that I am where I am supposed to be. A week later, I got an email while I was working on a different show and it said, ‘Oprah would like to meet you today, at 6 o’clock.’”
Dandridge then met with Winfrey; Carla Gardini, the EVP of Harpo Films; and Craig Wright, the creator of the show. She says the creative team shared their intentions for the show, including the storylines they wanted to explore that would hopefully resonate with the audience and be used as vehicles to touch and heal viewers. The meeting was a powerful experience, says Dandridge.
In season two of Greenleaf, the writers and producers tackled the subject of pedophilia and child sexual abuse within the family and the church. Dandridge’s character Grace Greenleaf kills her uncle, Robert “Mac” McCready (portrayed by acclaimed actor Gregory Alan Williams), who was also a member of the church’s hierarchy. When Grace suspected that Uncle Mac had molested her daughter, Sophia Greenleaf (Desiree Ross), her confrontation with him resulted in his murder.
Dandridge knows that the subject of child sexual abuse has struck a chord with the show’s audience, creating conversations within the church and the larger African American community. “When the responses started coming back [from the first episode of the second season], or when people stop me on the street daily, multiple times a day, and share their testimonies, and what the show has done for them; I know this has started many of them on their journey to healing.”
In recent years, the world has witnessed widespread cases of pedophilia and child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but it remains just one of many issues ignored in the African-American church, which is why the producers of Greenleaf should be applauded for addressing this issue. The episode raises numerous questions: In a contemporary church environment when ministry, counseling, and assistance are the pathways to redemption, how does the church effectively serve the churched and unchurched in the community of the sick and wounded without the proper help? Without any known effective psychiatric treatment for the pedophile, is an intervention likely to work on its own?
Certainly, one can empathize and sympathize with Grace’s actions to kill Uncle Mac under the circumstances, but it’s a rare occasion when a black woman privileged or otherwise, is vindicated for a crime of that magnitude without facing trial or escape imprisonment.
“We took this issue [pedophilia] very seriously,” says Dandridge of the show’s creative team. “We did our due diligence and our homework. I think what we are going to see with Grace, this second half of the season, is the aftermath of that and the consequence of how she chose to deal with her pain. Did she make the right decisions? Could she have done it differently? And how it haunts her. That is a very personal struggle. It is one thing to name the boogie man, name the problem, and go after the boogie man. How does that resonate in your own heart? How do you deal with that?”
Dandridge was born in Okinawa, Japan, to a mother of Japanese and Korean descent, and an African-American father who was in the Airforce Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad. The family moved from Japan to Korea before moving to the Beale Air Force Base in Sacramento, California. The family later moved to Offutt Air Force Base, in Bellevue, Nebraska, at the then-Strategic Air Command. Dandridge was raised in the suburbs of Omaha.
For Dandridge, an interest in acting took root in high school, when one of her girlfriends from church suggested that she take a drama class to fulfill her elective requirement. ‘Oh, it’s an easy elective,’ her friend told her. The advice changed the course of her life.
While in high school Dandridge attended the International Thespian Festival, an annual, weeklong theater festival where high school theater programs and groups across the country gather and participate in a series of workshops taught by high school teachers, college professors, and theater professionals. The International Thespian Festival is held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, some 50 miles from Omaha. It was at the festival where she saw her very first musical, which happened to be Once On This Island; it was also at the festival where Dandridge says she was inspired by the sense of community she found among actors and theater folk, whom she now refers to as her “tribe.”
During the festival, Dandridge auditioned and received a full scholarship to the Theatre Conservatory at Roosevelt University, also known as the Chicago College of Performing Arts. It proved to be the launching pad to her career.
Growing up with an athletic background, Dandridge understood the concept of discipline and what it takes to win. While attending this top conservatory, she immersed herself in the theater scene in Chicago, becoming inspired by its many local theater groups, including the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the many actors who came out of that company.
“I put my plow to the field, and put in the work,” says Dandridge. “I came out of that conservatory a completely different performer and person, and I had such a great skill set. I got the full ride for school and got an education that was integral to my growth. All of a sudden, I had this craft that I had fallen in love with, the Chicago theater community embraced me, and I, in turn, fell in love with it, and put my whole self back into it.”
After college, Dandridge packed up a U-Haul truck and headed to New York City with 100 dollars in her pocket. A resident of New York for 13 years, she made her Broadway debut in Jesus Christ Superstar and went on to star in Aida, and later appeared in Rent, Tarzan and Monty Python’s Spamalot. In between Broadway shows, she toured extensively throughout Europe and performed in U.S. national tours of Ain’t Misbehavin’, Smokey Joe’s Café, Aida, Spamalot, and Rent. Dandridge’s regional theater credits include a mix of contemporary works, including two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark and Atlanta at the Geffen Playhouse, and Kiss Me Kate and Showtune: Celebrating the Words & Music of Jerry Herman at the Pasadena Playhouse, among others. Dandridge has also built an impressive list of television and voiceover credits; she’s the voice behind several videogame characters including Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, The Last of Us, and numerous others.
Spiritually grounded, Dandridge is clear that her faith is the guiding force in her life. She knows that God has ordered her steps and that her life prepared her for this moment. She confesses that carrying the role of a leading lady was initially scary because of the visibility that comes with it, but she stepped into her confidence.
“With a character like this [Grace Greenleaf], on a [cable] network with a great cast and a great team of producers and writers, led by a woman [Oprah Winfrey] who continues to raise the consciousness of our culture, I knew that we were going to do something special. Everything she [Oprah Winfrey] does is with such great intention and purpose,” she notes.
Dandridge’s upcoming role as Pape Ge in Once On The Island, a musical celebrating Caribbean culture, also reconnects her to her time as a young actress at the International Thespian Festival, where she first saw the show. “I feel that I am coming full circle,” she says.
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She is a contributor to NBCNews.com/NBCBLK.com, BlackEnterprise.com, Black Enterprise’s BE Pulse, Huffington Post, EURWEB.com, and Medium.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business.