There’s an innate groundedness, a humility, about actress and singer Merle Dandridge. It’s a quality that’s immediately calming to the listener and connects you with her.
The Glow Up had the pleasure of catching up with Dandridge during her current run on Broadway as Papa Ge—a riff on the Haitian Creole god Guédé—in the revival of the Caribbean-inspired Broadway musical Once on This Island at New York City’s famed Circle in the Square Theatre.
Papa Ge is a major departure from Grace Greenleaf, the role bringing Dandridge national recognition as the star of Greenleaf, on the OWN Network. Aside from the gender-bending roles of this production, which also stars Glee favorite Alex Newell as goddess Asaka, singing the house down, Dandridge’s embodiment of Papa Ge is raw, sinewy and very dark. Fitting, for the god of death. As she tells The Glow Up:
People who know the show have real opinions and feelings about how it should be done, and it’s been really exciting to see those people—myself included—come in with a fresh perspective. ... If you change the gender, you release it from so many parameters, when you’re doing a revival. And all of a sudden, the role became fresh and new, and I just couldn’t wait to dig into it and find out who this person was. So that was a no-brainer for me.
This production, poignantly set on a hurricane-ravaged tropical island, is strewn with remnants of a life once lived. The ensemble cast, which includes a child and a goat—yes, a goat—is living and loving amid the rubble, a stark reminder of our brothers and sisters in devastated parts of the Caribbean this holiday season. As Dandridge notes:
The audience walks into this place post-hurricane. Garbage is everywhere, and the remnants of disaster-relief care packages that might not be so helpful. ... But then we turn these bits of garbage into things that are helpful and beautiful, to uplift the spirit. So even subliminally, I feel like there’s a sense that even out of the rubble, the human spirit and everything that goes along with it triumphing are going to be elucidated and elevated while we do this—while we pick up the rubble. And it sends a message that we are not we are not stuck in our despair. We can rise, and we can do it by helping each other.
Dandridge’s own transformation during the show is transfixing and sinister, as her onstage scavenger hunt grows into a costume literally made of metal, hair, skin and bones. She tells The Glow Up that the transformation is as much emotional as physical:
In my building of this character, it’s very much a broken woman who is so hurt and has been so devastated that she’s shed everything and let go of her femininity; lets go of anything worldly and just lives in the earth and in the spirit realm in the conjuring ... you just see this sinewy, very from-the-gut primal character that is devoid of all that stuff. So I hope that in the building of a character and the audience going on the journey with us that they are not distracted by the costume, but led on the emotional journey of Papa Ge.
For those of us who are fans of OWN’s Greenleaf, we’ve also watched the emotional journey of Grace Greenleaf, a role Dandridge has brought to the screen with the same grounded grace (yes, pun intended) with which she seems to approach her life. She says:
There was a real sense of knowing and peace when this particular script came across my desk. When I read it, it just seemed so familiar, and just easy in my spirit. Sometimes, it takes a little bit of creativity and work to squeeze yourself into a character and really build that, so that you understand something that’s foreign to you. I had an innate understanding of Grace Greenleaf as soon as I read her. ... She’s very complicated, and very flawed. And I love that about her.
The feeling was apparently mutual, as Oprah claims to have known that Dandridge was “the one” as soon as she saw her audition tape. She immediately asked the actress for a meeting, which Dandridge says “was the genesis of a continuing conversation.”
The experience of shooting Greenleaf has also been a very personal one for Dandridge. She’s working with some incredible on-set teachers in the cast—like fellow stage-and-screen actor Keith David, who plays Grace’s father, Bishop James Greenleaf—but Greenleaf’s plot resonates with Dandridge’s own family, too:
Growing up, I was always in church every Sunday morning, and my summers were spent in Memphis[, Tenn.,] with my dad’s family all day at our church, so my family is my barometer. And if it’s hitting with them, I think we’re hitting the mark—and we always are. ... And then, on the flip side of that, to have those waves of understanding and resonance come back at me from the audience, to know that we’re hitting the heartbeat of what we’re trying to say—it’s deeply gratifying. So it’s a win-win, and I’m thrilled all the way around.
The Glow Up gift tip: If you’re in the New York City area this holiday season, try to catch Merle Dandridge and the spectacular cast of Once on This Island at Circle in the Square. This production is not to be missed! Tickets are available here.