These are strange times. It’s Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and I am genuflecting, responsively reading to a distant service, streamed into my office — socially distanced from a congregation that isn’t there — praying and singing the hymns of the Torah while sitting in my home office … and thinking of Jesus.
How can I not? I picture Bishop Greenleaf standing at the holy ark, purple satin robes swaying like an ecumenical curtain while Deborah Joy Winans in the role of Charity Greenleaf raises the dead with a gospel version of Avinu Malkeinu. While I should have been bingeing on repenting my sins, instead I had been binge-watching “Greenleaf.” It could just as well have been called “Greenberg” for the bridge that this incredible 5-season arc connected evangelical Christianity (no, not the political kind) to all faiths and cultures — especially mine and especially during these dark times where God is tallied by polls and not by souls.
I had to blink and return my attention back to the services. Yet I scanned the bimah, hoping to get a glimpse of Lady Mae, or at least Gigi, sitting slightly stage left, raising their hands in hosannas and amens as the good bishop, or rabbi, intoned God’s message. “Greenleaf” had indeed been firmly seated in my perception of what spirituality should be — and that spirituality rode above each family crisis that threatened to tear this splintered family further apart. Yet I drew strength from each bit of dialogue that Keith David’s Bishop Greenleaf interpreted from the brilliant teleplay to my spiritually-starved heart and the hearts of millions of viewers.
Kudos to the casting director because nobody could play the role of Bishop Greenleaf better than Keith David. He freaking nailed it -0 each episode had Keith and Lynne Whitfield (as stalwart first-lady-of-the-church Mae Greenleaf) putting out fires like a digital Proverbs 13:9 “The light of the righteous rejoices, But the lamp of the wicked goes out.”
Er … maybe not so in all cases. There were some pretty bright lamps of the wicked in this series, yet in the halogen glare of evil, we were always offered salvation.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a preacher,” Keith David mentioned in a recent conversation. “And now that I’m in the second act of my life, this wonderful opportunity came to fulfill a fantasy. I get to play it out, and not just the preaching part, but also to see what it’s like to ‘walk the walk,’ and I get to tell those stories of how the preacher is just a man, given to the frailties of anyone else. And because he is a flawed man who wants to be worthy of the honor of God, he wakes up to an event in his life for which he must atone.”
As King in “Platoon,” Keith’s affable portrayal was a harbinger for his role as Bishop Greenleaf. I remember him taking the joint from Charlie Sheen’s lips, telling him “you’re smoking too much of this s–t,” and then placing it precariously between his own lips, smiling and telling Sheen to “keep his pecker hard and his powder dry.” That is so Bishop Greenleaf! Hating the sin but loving the sinner, and taking a taste of the sin just so that he could be grounded and connected to his flock.
Recently, both Keith David and Lynne Whitfield appeared in The Man/Kind Project’s TEARS: The Event Against Racism and Stereotyping, where both offered hope and inspiration for those struggling against racism and violence under color of authority. I wasn’t surprised when Lynn spoke about growing up in Baton Rouge. As a student of Robert E. Lee High School, Lynn met racism “with fire and then with accomplishment,” never losing a keen sense of commiseration as she wondered aloud how it must have been to be Emmett Till’s mother. Emmett was a 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi after being falsely accused of “offending a white woman in her grocery store.”
“I want the world to see what this kind of racism did to my son,” Lynn said, conjuring up the spirit of every parent who lost a child to racism. Art indeed imitates life. “Greenleaf,” if anything, was a platform for each actor to conjure up their own humanity and connect to our own frailties.
No spoiler alert here, I’m not going to ruin it for you.
I will tell you that the final episode had my wife and me on our knees, not in prayer — but actually weeping to one of the most powerful indictments against our own marginalization of the human condition. Sound vague? Lynn Whitfield went there. She forced our eyes open, clamped wide like Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” — but this time our stare was forced inward while she rained down a blistering performance that I’m told will springboard her into another series. God is good, as I’m sure her agent must be saying.
“Greenleaf” can be streamed on Amazon Prime.
TEARS Episode 2 can be watched at www.themankindproject.org