A Love Letter to Lady Mae, the Powerful, Graceful Center of ‘Greenleaf’
Lynn Whitfield’s character was everything in OWN’s popular gospel series
“Promise me you’re not here to sow discord in the fields of my peace,” Lady Mae whispers into her eldest child Grace’s ear just minutes into the first episode of Greenleaf. That frosty greeting, spoken to an estranged adult child returning home for the funeral of her sister who died by suicide, set the stage for a Black megachurch drama so epic that Hollywood could never have imagined it. And it didn’t. Oprah Winfrey did while working alongside Greenleaf creator, showrunner, and former minister Craig Wright.
Growing up in the South, church was the epicenter for Oprah. But she had questions. Greenleaf, which premiered in 2016, has been an attempt to answer them with some adultery, stealing, betrayal, jealousy, and lots of scandalous secrets in the mix.
Technically Merle Dandridge, who was relatively obscure when she got the role of Grace, is the lead actress. But, as any Greenleaf fan knows, the generally beloved Lynn Whitfield, of Josephine Baker and A Thin Line Between Love and Hate renown, plays Lady Mae and is essentially the heartbeat of the show. Whitfield’s Lady Mae is very much the rib to Bishop James Greenleaf, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church. Take away Lady Mae and what would Greenleaf be?
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For five seasons, Lady Mae was in the middle of the action that viewers care about most. Her daughter Grace left Memphis to escape the pressure of being from a prominent church family and to distance herself from her Uncle Mac, her mother’s brother. Uncle Mac tried to sexually abuse Grace as a child and succeeded with her sister Faith. And in her mind, [Lady Mae insisted she did not know], her mother was complicitous. Then there’s the drama surrounding Grace’s paternity and the perpetual, lifelong tension she endured with Lady Mae.