Although Lynn Whitfield’s earliest aspiration was to become a ballerina, she knew at a young age that she wanted to be an actress. Whitfield went on to appear in some of what have become part of the African-American canon of stage and screen. “For Colored Girls…,” “The Josephine Baker Story,” for which she won an Emmy, and “Eve’s Bayou” to name a few.
Lynn Whitfield (left) is one of the stars of Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Greenleaf.’ (Courtesy photo)
Whitfield was a class of actress not easily categorized in Hollywood in the 1980’s and 1990’s. She admits to feeling at the time that Hollywood did not really know what to do with her. She told the AFRO, “Yeah, I think at that time they didn’t quite know what to do with me and, you know, I figure that the role dictates the patina that you put on yourself as an actor and I just wasn’t so easy to just throw on a patina of what’s considered Black. Black people come in so many shapes, sizes, packages, cultural experiences, etc.”
She is quite pleased with how the media landscape has changed of late at least in terms of television. “Now, thanks to people like Shonda Rhimes and the like there are the roles that are now being written for Black women that are authoritative, layered, textured, and being, you know, placed smack dab in the middle of a very diverse world in handling it.”
Ever protective of her work, she never let any of the frustrations of her profession intrude on her craft. “That interferes with my artistry if I walk around feeling victimized by it or resentful of it or looking at the world of entertainment and storytelling as a political platform of what did or didn’t happen. I just keep doing my work and kind of being very proud and happy for the progress we’re making and kind of re-filtering everything so that all my feelings are available to me. All my instrument is available to me without resentment and without regret that I can just keep being excited.”
Whitfield was at first hesitant about taking on the role of the matriarch Lady Mae in Oprah’s second scripted drama for her OWN Network. “Greenleaf” is a soapy family drama about an extremely well off Memphis family whose business is running a mega-church which began airing in June.
It was literally one line that finally convinced her to do it. She recalls asking “Greenleaf” writer Craig Wright a series of probing questions. “I asked, ‘Why do you want me to do this and what are your intentions for the character? What is your arc for the character?’ Which at that time, Craig didn’t tell me.”
The more she talked to him, the more intrigued he became. Still, she was not quite sold. “So he read a scene from an episode down the line. ‘Strength like yours is best served in silence.’ I said aah okay I got it. So he said ‘Can I call Oprah and Lions Gate and tell them you’re gonna do this?’”
Since then, Whitfield has grown to know her character more intimately. Speaking of Lady Mae she says, “She’s the queen of her kingdom. She started off very slow and little by little she is becoming more developed. A fuller character. Each episode you get a little bit more of who she is and the tenacity with which she is determined to hold onto the family and its legacy and to keep order in the church and protect her husband and her children.”
For Whitfield, Lady Mae is just the latest in a line of characters about which she feels eminently proud of being able to bring to the screen. “I’ve just been blessed that I have been a part of classics. They are classics. Every year they play “Thin Line ” every year they play “Eve’s Bayou.” They are in people’s libraries. I’m humbled by it and just so happy about that.”
“Greenleaf” is on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST on OWN.