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Master Class

How Oprah's New Drama "Greenleaf" Is Built On Faith, Flawed Characters...And Tattoos?

Show creator Craig Wright explains his personal connection with the show and getting inked in the name of creative collaboration.

How Oprah's New Drama "Greenleaf" Is Built On Faith, Flawed Characters...And Tattoos?
[Photo: Eli Ade, courtesy of Oprah WInfrey Network]

Every tattoo tells a story—Craig Wright’s just happens to involve a personal relationship with Oprah Winfrey.

Wright, the Emmy-nominated writer of shows including Lost and Six Feet Under, first met Winfrey as a consultant on her miniseries Belief, seeing as how, in addition to his prestigious writing credits, Wright was also a minister in a past life. It didn’t take long for the pair to reflect on their experiences with faith, religion, and institutes of worship before the seedling of what is now Oprah Winfrey Network’s newest scripted drama, Greenleaf, was planted in their minds—and, soon enough, on Wright’s arms.

"The first day when Oprah and I decided to do the show, I walked across the street and got a tattoo on my right arm with an arrow leading up to my heart and a tattoo and my left arm with an arrow leading down to my hand because I was just committing myself to meeting people and listening to them and writing down what they say," Wright says. "And that’s going to be my process for this. The times when that works best, that’s when the show is at its best."

Greenleaf very well could be Wright’s chef d'oeuvre: As a successful playwright, Wright has sewn religion into his works before but not on this scale. As the show’s creator, co-executive producer, and cowriter, Wright is realizing his career ambition to deftly critique religion and those who live their lives by it.

Set in Memphis, Greenleaf follows Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) as she travels back to the family and past she tried to leave behind after her sister mysteriously commits suicide. Secrets steeped in sex, lies, and greed begin to seep through the foundation of prominence the Greenleafs have erected as the first family of the fictional black megachurch Calvary Fellowship World Ministries.

When developing the show, Wright was very specific in centering his story around a black church versus a white church, not only because it’s a chord that strikes soundly with Winfrey, who grew up in southern black churches, but also because black churches, in Wright’s estimation, inherently have a layer of complexity in the community that can create a richer narrative.

Full disclosure: Wright is white.

"I had always wanted to do a show about a church and had never been able to really find a right way to do it. I’ve come to see dramatizing white privileged spirituality is kind of a dead end—it tends to devolve into either satire or sanctimony. Do you really need heaven, [white people]? You have the whole Earth—enough already," Wright says. "Let’s assume that there are millions and millions of privileged white people with very sincere faith, but that’s a separate issue from what you can do with storytelling. As Oprah has always been saying, the black church is not just Sunday morning to the people that go there—it’s their entire life. It’s the community center. It’s the psychologist. It’s the therapist. It’s the knitting circle. It’s everything. There’s a tremendous buy-in going into it where you’re not questioning the reality of their faith, so when they make mistakes, when they’re hypocritical, or they do bad things, you don’t immediately think they don’t really believe what they say. You just think they screwed up. I feel like it’s a much more tenable foundation upon which to create a long-term relationship with characters."

Noble though Wright’s intentions may be, he’s still walking the thinnest of lines while balancing thoughtful critique and juicy drama above an institution that some find sacrosanct. What Wright has stitched together to ground Greenleaf in authenticity are parts of his past as a minister and the input of Greenleaf’s writers and Winfrey’s team who have experience inside black churches.

"Near the time that I left the church, I asked a superior of mine a question, and he said to me very tartly, ‘Craig, you can either work in the church or on the church, but you can’t do both.’ And at that moment something sort of broke inside me and I was like, ‘oh, I’ll be leaving here soon.’ So working with Oprah on this show finally gave me a chance to finish that conversation," Wright says. "From the very beginning, the conversation with Oprah was immensely collaborative, very give-and-take. Her telling her stories, me telling mine, and we found the middle ground. And then we invited her team in and Lionsgate and then the other writers, and we just listened to each other. We had writers who had grown up in the black church and who are still members of the black church going every Sunday. If we came up with a story that rubbed too many people on the team the wrong way, we’re like, let’s look at why they’re upset, and let’s find a way to tell what’s valuable about it."

Craig Wright

That’s the key to finding Greenleaf’s balance: extracting value, purpose, and motivation from all the characters. By imbuing everyone with the shades of gray only religion can mix, no one person in Greenleaf is wholly good or wholly evil.

"Greenleaf doesn’t want to destroy anything about the church. In contrast, we’re trying to tell stories that, by encouraging thoughtful, clear-eyed critique, can actually burnish the value of the church. If you start to limit critique of something, you’re going to kill it. I want to preserve the church and I want to defend the church against people within it who say we shouldn’t ask these tough questions," Wright says. "In episode two, there’s something [Grace’s father] the bishop does where he sits Grace down and he says, before you do anything just make sure you’re doing it out of love. That scene in a lot of ways could be the whole ethic of the show. We’re going to critique our characters when they make mistakes, but we’re never going to do it without love."

In Wright’s opinion, every show has an essential energy to it—that one subliminal tone that rides an undercurrent to whatever weekly situation is afoot. The task with Greenleaf was to figure out whose grief matched with whose vengeance, or whose avarice butted against whose piety.

Photo: Guy D'Alema

"There’s a version of Greenleaf where Grace is an avenging angel. There’s a version of Greenleaf where Grace is a humble learned at the feet of her elders. And neither one of those feels exactly right. I waited until I could see a balance point so that all the characters could have their decency and all the characters could have the the things they’re right about. Everyone on this show is right about something—nobody is all wrong. Except for maybe [presumed pedophilic rapist] Mac—Mac is probably all wrong," Wright says. "But here’s what’s beautiful about having a story about religion: On Greenleaf if Mac were to say, ‘Whether I go to hell is between me and Jesus Christ and your opinion has very little to do with the outcome.’ You would have to say, Mac’s right about something, too. If there is a God, then nobody is all wrong because that means there’s still a little light of possibility inside them. Certainly the world is full of Christians who’ve made mistakes who are waiting for the chance to be forgiven and grow again."

Instilling that moral ambiguity also keeps Greenleaf floating above the status of a salacious soap opera. That said, Wright’s aim isn’t to create a documentary—there are certainly plot lines in the show that dip toward the low end of the brow. And that’s totally fine in Wright’s book, as long as there’s something to equal that out.

"There are large swaths of story that have soapy structures to them, but in the deep filaments of the moment-to-moment workings out of the story, the characters are always more complicated than you expect and they’re always more positively activated than you expect," Wright says. "That’s what keeps it from becoming a soap. If someone is doing a nice thing, it’s probably tinged with selfishness. And if someone’s doing a bad thing, it’s probably tinged with regret. Everybody’s confused. The Greenleafs are as rich as Solomon, as beautiful as Jezebel, and as confused as Judas at the Last Supper."

Photo: Guy D'Alema

As personal to Wright as Greenleaf is, he appears to be grateful to share the experience with team members who have their own connections with a higher power. The tattoo Wright got in Greenleaf’s early stages goes beyond its ties to Oprah Winfrey, as legendary as those ties may be—it’s a reminder that his role as a creator is by no means a solitary one. And that no matter what stage his career is in, there’s something to give and something to gain.

"As I go forward in life, I prefer to enter situations as a learner. I want to go into situations where I’m learning and bringing my curiosity and my intellectual passion to it as opposed to what I might ‘know.’ Getting older, I approach everything more humbly that way and I find it works better all the time," Wright says. "I have a really special relationship with Oprah, and I’m just so grateful that we found each other and that our conversation can be spread out over this beautiful canvas. My hope for Greenleaf is that, moving forward, it can continue to provoke conversations and honest curiosity about faith, family, and race. I don’t pretend to have any answers. But I do think I can help ask the questions—and that’s all I want to do."

Greenleaf premieres Tuesday, June 21 at 10/9C on OWN.

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