Deborah Joy Winans, the real-life member of a famous musical church family, has spent the past few years living with another faithful bunch that, despite being fictional and more melodramatic, shares something with her own: Mistakes are made, but they just keep coming back to God.
On “Greenleaf,” the original series on the Oprah Winfrey Network, now in its fifth and final season, Winans portrays Charity Greenleaf, the youngest daughter of a family that runs a Black megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee.
Winans’ character has miscarried one of a set of twins, has coped with a husband who is questioning his sexuality and has striven to gain what she views as her rightful place in her family and in her church. As the final season starts, Charity is helping a global church conglomerate take over her family’s Calvary Fellowship World Ministries.
Winans, a 30-something Detroit native who describes herself as a nondenominational Christian, talked with Religion News Service about the show that moved her from stage to screen and about the real-life events the country has faced since production for the show wrapped.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your character, Charity Greenleaf, is greeted by her mother in this season’s first episode as “Little Miss Benedictine Arnold, traitor to a whole family.” How does it feel to play the outcast?
It feels terrible. But I love the fact that Charity takes it and keeps going. She recognizes the mistake that she’s made, the betrayal she has been a part of, the hurt that she’s created, and she keeps steppin’. She’s not happy about it, but she realizes she has to keep going to make it better.
Charity is part of a fictional Black church dynasty. And you are part of the real-life Winans gospel music family. How would you compare the two, if you can at all?
I’m thankful that I don’t have to compare them in many ways. But with my family, the Winans family, and the Greenleaf family, what I do know is that they’re all human. They all have failed. They all have made mistakes, but they all always go back to their foundation. They go back to the Word of God and they revisit their faith and the next steps to make in order to really stay aligned with the faith, as opposed to the wrong of what they’ve done.
You are the niece of the gospel singers BeBe and CeCe Winans and the daughter of Carvin Winans of the gospel group the Winans. Have you ever been interested in singing?
Singing has never been an interest — not even half an interest. I’ve loved acting since I was a little girl. And so I got my BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) in acting. I spent a month studying at the Moscow Art Theatre School in Russia and then I went on to get my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in acting from California Institute of the Arts. Acting has always been my main passion, my drive, my desire. Music has simply been an additive in these later years, as far as the jobs that I’ve been blessed to have.
Oprah Winfrey sought you out for the role of Charity. How did you connect with her?
I was doing a workshop of my uncle’s musical, “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” in New York in 2015 and Oprah, along with Gayle (King) and Cicely Tyson, came to a reading. Two months later, she called and said that she could not get me out of her mind for this particular role. Unfortunately, nobody (at the network) knew who I was. I said, “Well, yeah, I haven’t done anything yet.” And she said, “That’s OK. I think that they’ll see what I see when it’s time for you to audition. I’m going to open the door for you as wide as I possibly can and when you go, you do what you Winans do.” And I was like, “Yes, ma’am.”
Has there been pushback from Black church members about the show, given that the Greenleafs deal with murder, abuse and affairs?
I do think that there has been some pushback because there’s so much drama and it’s so juicy. But that’s what you want in a dramatic TV show. That’s what keeps viewers coming back week to week. But I think they recognize that this is not based on someone’s church or some specific pastor or some specific deacon. This is just a world that was created to honor the cornerstone that the church is in our Black community, (while it) allows people to possibly start conversations that maybe previously were just sort of swept under the rug.
Charity did everything she could to become an associate pastor. Do you think her struggle to be a preacher reflects real life for women in some churches, including Black churches?
Oh, absolutely. In the Black community and particularly in the Black church community, for years, women were not seen as equal. Charity fights to do the right thing in the eyes of her parents, to be the perfect child, to listen to herself and really go after this calling that she has felt on her as a little girl. But her family says, “Oh yeah, OK. Maybe. Soon. But just keep singing.” And they don’t agree or see the vision that she feels like God has given her for her own life. And that happens a lot in the church.
If you could talk to Charity, the character you play, what would you tell her?
Oooh, girl! You need to love you. I would tell Charity that she’s been searching for the approval of her family for who she is, for what she wants, for where she believes she’s supposed to be. And because she’s been searching for their approval, she has left the one and only approval that she needs, which is God’s. I would just tell her to look at herself through the lens of Christ, through the lens of love. When you recognize who you are in God and your value and your worth, you don’t need anybody else’s approval.
Has COVID-19 affected you and your real-life family?
My Uncle Marvin, my dad’s twin brother, came down with COVID-19 and was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. It didn’t look very good at all. But what was beautiful about that is that we came together as a family via Zoom and started having these family meetings every week, catching up with everybody, praying for those that have been affected, those that are hurting. And, thankfully, my uncle is doing very well.
With the country dealing with a pandemic, the George Floyd protests and an economic downturn, how does a show like “Greenleaf” fit into people’s lives right now?
I think that “Greenleaf” does offer a chance for people to let go. But it’s still honoring a Black family. It’s seeing yourself represented, and I think that we need that.
I do think this pandemic of COVID-19 has really brought us together as a world, as a human family. Because everybody was stuck at home, having to figure out how to manage, everybody also had to see this global pandemic of racism. They didn’t get to turn a blind eye to it. I tell people, if you have breath in your body you are able to help make a change in this country. Find your voice, find your way to serve. There is something that you can do to further this fight for justice in our world.