Theater Roots and Television Leaves
Merle Dandridge maintains her Broadway theater roots while branching out with a successful small screen career on Greenleaf.
For a person who only decided to take a drama class as an “easy elective” in high school, Merle Dandridge has certainly come a long way.
Born in Okinawa, Japan to a Japanese and Korean mother and African American father, Dandridge grew up in a military family and spent most of her childhood on an Air Force base in Nebraska. “I didn’t really find the arts until I was almost out of high school, “ she laughs, “A girlfriend of mine said, ‘Well, if you’re looking for an elective, you should take drama - that’s easy.”
Dandridge took the course and travelled to the International Thespian Festival with her fellow students. She ended up leaving the festival with a full ride to college to study drama. “At that point, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for college, so it was a great gift, a way to get out of Nebraska and get a college education. That was the genesis of this incredible life that I’m living now,” she explains.
Dandridge credits her strong work ethic and God’s hand in guiding her successful career following her graduation from the Theater Conservatory at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “As soon as I was done, I loaded a U-Haul and drove myself to New York with $100.00 in my pocket,” she says.
What followed was a Broadway career that would make many fellow actors envious. After first touring as a “swing” covering all of the female roles in Smokey Joe’s Café, Dandridge landed roles in Broadway productions of Spamalot (Lady of the Lake), Rent (Joanne), Aida (Aida), Tarzan (Kala), and Jesus Christ Superstar (Soul Girl, Disciple, Mary).
“You know, it was a dream come true, I have to say,” Dandridge reminisces of her years on Broadway. “Eight shows a week for years and years… it can wear you down. You have to keep up your physical health, your mental health. But every day, I reminded myself while walking through the stage door, ‘You are living the dream.’
"It was absolutely incredible. I was suddenly in a community that - as opposed to Nebraska, where it was pretty homogenous and I stuck out like a sore thumb - I was in New York in the Broadway community where everyone is dynamic and interesting and different, and it was an absolute thrill.”
During her yearly vacation week from her shows, Dandridge often auditioned for television roles. “I was very lucky, I was always booking one, and so I would use my vacation time to do that. I was getting my feet wet here and there, and it was a little scary, because it was a completely different muscle than theater - a different way to tell stories,” she explains.
“But one night,” she continues, “I was doing Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, and I walked down Shubert Alley and I was just like, ‘I’m ready for something else.’ I just kind of lifted up my hands and said, ‘God, whatever you want to do, do it.’ And a week later we got our closing notice and I got an offer to come to Los Angeles. It just felt like the perfect flow and segue, and I ended up staying. It was a big life shift.”
Dandridge made a seamless transition to the small screen, appearing in guest roles on shows such as Sons of Anarchy, Drop Dead Diva, Suits, Star-Crossed, and The Night Shift. She also garnered awards as a voice artist for her work on video games such as Half-Life 2, The Last of Us, and Uncharted 4.
The biggest moment of Dandridge’s career, however, came in 2015 when she auditioned for the part of Grace Greenleaf on the Oprah Winfrey/Lionsgate show Greenleaf. The role, she says, was a perfect fit: “It just felt so comfortable and right to just walk right into this particular role,” she explains, “The words just came to me so easily, and the character settled into my spirit with such ease.”
Dandridge left the audition feeling like it went well, but since she was guest starring on another show she immersed herself in her work and stopped thinking about Greenleaf.
“A week later, I got an email in the middle of the day saying Oprah wanted to meet me that evening at 6:00PM. So, I finished up my workday and went in met with Ms. Winfrey and [EVP of Harpo Films] Carla Gardini and the creator of the show, Craig Wright. We sat there for two hours and talked about our intention with the show, the potential impact the show could have, and our understanding of the character and the family that she’s a part of.”
“I will tell you that it just felt right, ordained, and good in my heart… and I think we all felt that way in the conversation at the end of it. It just seemed we were in agreement that we were going to go on this road together. It doesn’t happen like that all the time.”
The show centers on the Greenleaf family and the inner workings of both their household and the Memphis megachurch they run. Dandridge’s character Grace is what she calls the “prodigal daughter” who leaves town after realizing the depths of corruption and abuse going on around her, but returns after a 20-year absence for her sister’s funeral.
She decides to stay in Memphis and tries to expose long-hidden secrets and injustices in the church and family. Along the way, she deals with hot-button issues such as sexual abuse, LGBTQ discrimination, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and domestic violence.
Dandridge has a personal connection to the character, since her father’s family is from Memphis. “The Dandridges are steeped in the Memphis black church,” she notes, “and my barometer to find out if we’re going in the right direction is them.” She continues, “I’ll call and say, ‘Hey, I’m coming in a couple of hours, is anybody available?’ And there will be 30 people who show up to dinner at the last minute.
"That’s how great the Dandridges are. I’ll ask them questions about the storylines, and they’ll say, ‘Yep, yep, yep,’ and check off the boxes. You name it, and we’re talking about it, and they’re grateful that the stories are being told. I love hearing from them that they appreciate the show and that it’s sparking conversation and healing.”
Despite the success of Greenleaf, which premiered to OWN’s biggest audience ever and has already been renewed for its second and third season, Dandridge still feels the pull of the theater.
She serves on the board of the Geffen Playhouse, where she is “one of an extraordinary group of people who just love the theater. We partner with schools to bring literacy projects into their curriculums, and we’re very hands on with veterans’ programs along with bringing relevant, timely, and entertaining theater to the west side of Los Angeles.”
In addition, this November Dandridge will head back to Broadway during a hiatus from filming Greenleaf. “I’m doing a revival of Once on This Island,” she explains, “and I’m doing a role that I never would have thought I would be cast in, because it’s traditionally a male role-- Papa Ge, Demon of Death.
"This is the first time a woman is playing it, so there’s a lot of nuance and sexuality and maternal energy and just female wiles that can be steeped into this role that have never been before, so I’m so very excited. It’s something completely different.”
The second half of Greenleaf Season 2 airs Wednesdays on OWN, and the show has been renewed for a third season; Once On This Island opens December 3rd at the Circle in the Square Theater, New York.