If you’ve seen the award-winning Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) original drama series Greenleaf, about the Greenleaf family and their Memphis megachurch, you might be surprised to learn that its co-creator has Minnesota roots.
Craig Wright (Lost, Six Feet Under) is the co-creator, head writer and producer of the hit cable television series about faith and family. He began his career as a playwright in Minnesota and is also a former Twin Cities musician and a trained minister.
Wright recently returned to his Minnesota roots for an event called “In Conversation: Craig Wright & Dominic Papatola.” The event, held on the evening of June 5 at the United Theological Seminary in New Brighten, Minnesota, highlighted the intersection of art and spirituality. The conversation was led by Pioneer Press Theater Critic Dominic Papatola, who is also a fellow United Theological Seminary alum and a longtime friend of Wright’s.
United Theological Seminary (UTS) is Wright’s graduate school alma mater where he trained to become a minister; he completed his undergraduate studies at St. John’s College in Collegeville, Minnesota. While studying at UTS, Wright wrote The Pavilion and Orange Flower Water, plays that were good enough to be produced around the country in dozens of productions — starting with the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. His play Grace eventually made its way to the bright lights of Broadway.
The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR) spoke with Craig Wright (CW) via a Skype conference prior to the event. An excerpt of that conversation appears below.
MSR: When did you begin living in Minnesota?
CW: I was born in Puerto Rico and I lived up and down the east coast until I was 14 years old. Then I left home on my own and moved to northern Minnesota. That’s where I lived until I was 20 and then moved to the Twin Cities.
MSR: When did you move away from Minnesota?
MSR: I understand you’re also a musician?
CW: Yeah, I use to be in a couple of bands back in the Twin Cities. I was in a band called the Tropicals and one called Kangaroo.
MSR: When were you last here in Minnesota?
CW: It was a few years ago to speak at UTS.
MSR: Tell me about art and spirituality meeting at the crossroads. How did this conversation event come about?
CW: This was a joint idea between me and UTS. I don’t tend to categorize things a whole lot. All communications is communications. Whether it’s preaching, teaching, writing or singing, it’s just one big bucket of noise, in a good way.
MSR: You wrote a number of successful plays and have a background in music; do you ever plan to write a musical?
CW: I wrote half of a musical. It was a play called Melissa Artic, which was an adaptation of Winter’s Tale that took place in Minnesota. The second act was a musical. I’m about to launch into a new complete musical with a musician name Frank Turner from England.
MSR: Now let’s talk about Greenleaf.
MSR: Many Black people think that the head writer of Greenleaf is Black. How does a White guy basically from Minnesota write, produce and capture all the nuances of Black megachurch life so well?
CW: In a sense, the show was created by someone Black, or at least co-created. The show came about from conversations between me and Oprah. She and I met around her documentary Belief that she aired on [OWN].
Our discussions about that turned into discussions about whether to and how to create a show about the Black church. So, I said to Oprah, “[Did] you know I used to be a minister?” And she said, “Of a Black church?” So we just continued talking. Oprah and I shook hands and decided to make it happen.
I’m certainly not a person that has lived all of these experiences. My success at this job was going to be dependant on how closely I listened to people about their experiences and enfranchising my Black partners to make this show their own.
So, to say I created the show is a bit of a misnomer. It started with me and Oprah and grew from there as we hired writers, consultants and people living the Black church experience everyday to weigh in on what needed to be talked about and said. The actors weigh in all of the time because it’s a very communal show.
Oprah and I believe that the Black church is a foundation for the community. As Oprah likes to say, “It’s the doctor, it’s the lawyer, it’s the food bank; it’s everything.” As such, it is sturdy enough and has a rich enough history that it can endure being questioned.
Greenleaf’s debut last June was the highest in OWN history and became the number-one new cable series for women in 2016. The second season premiered in March 2017, with the second half airing this summer. The series stars Merle Dandridge, Lynn Whitfield, Keith David, Rick Fox and Oprah Winfrey, among others, and airs Wednesdays at 9 pm CST on OWN. Check local listings for show times. Find more information about the show by going to www.oprah.com/app/greenleaf.html. The series can also be found on Netflix.
James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader comments to email@example.com.
James L. Stroud Jr. is a contributing writer and photographer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.