Merle Dandridge is coming home.

Taking a break from her starring role in “Greenleaf” opposite Oprah Winfrey, Dandridge is heading back to the Omaha area this weekend to dish out acting advice, help with flood relief efforts and take her mom out for a birthday dinner.

You might not know of the 43-year-old actress, but perhaps you recognize her face. In addition to her lead role in “Greenleaf,” she has numerous credits in shows such as “Murphy Brown” and “Sons of Anarchy.” Or “The Night Shift,” “NCIS,” “24” and “Star-Crossed,” among others. Oh, and there’s her voiceover work for massive video games such as “Half-Life 2” and “Uncharted 4.”

And her roles in Broadway productions: “Spamalot,” “Rent,” “Tarzan” and “Once On This Island.”

She’s a busy, accomplished actress; you’ve probably seen her many times without even knowing it.

And she got her start in acting at Papillion-La Vista High School.

Raised in Nebraska, Dandridge attended Papillion-La Vista junior and senior high. In high school, a friend told her drama was an easy elective. It ended up turning into much more than that.

The actress planned to pay her success forward this weekend by helping with Papillion-La Vista South’s production of “Once On This Island.” (Dandridge starred as Papa Ge in a Tony-winning production of the same musical on Broadway last year.) Then she planned to help members of her church, Bellevue Church of Christ, at its flood relief distribution center.

“It’s great to come back and show some Husker pride,” Dandridge told me. “I feel like I have to come back and put my foot on the soil. My heart gets filled up.”

Though she’s accomplished so much in so many areas of entertainment, The World-Herald hasn’t written much about her over the years. (Many locals probably don’t even know she’s from around here.)

Allow me to change that.

Dandridge called us last week to talk about Broadway, her favorite teachers, helping those in need and what she planned to tell the actors at her alma mater. Some answers have been edited for length or clarity.

Q: You were born in Japan, but you grew up in Omaha. How long did you live here?

A: From kindergarten through 12th grade. I went to Golden Hills Elementary. I went to Papillion Junior High and I went to Papillion-La Vista High School.

This weekend is pretty great, because I get to be a part of the school district and share my experience with the last Broadway show I did, “Once On This Island,” which won the Tony last year. Our take on it (on Broadway) happened to be setting it in a post-hurricane Haiti. Everyone was gathering around, pooling their resources after a natural disaster happened.

It’s timely and wonderful because the other thing that I’m coming to do is to partner with the church I grew up in, which is partnering with Sarpy County and the Multi Agency Resource Center to do flood relief efforts and get involved in that this weekend.

Q: You started doing plays in high school, and you come back to help with the school district often. Did your time in Nebraska have a big impact on you?

A: I believe greatly in giving back to where you have been nurtured. They certainly did that: My choir director, David Cecil. My drama director, Janey Sommers, my senior year was her last year. And Jeff Nienhueser, who is now directing the show that I am going to workshop with him, he took over the year after I graduated and has remained a great friend.

And also, my ninth-grade track coach, Pat Zalesky, was a great influence in teaching me how to practically push me past my limits and be dedicated at anything you put your hand to.

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Q: What do you talk to the kids about when you’re helping them with the production?

A: The first thing that I like to give them whenever I come back is to show them the step and the leap from where they are right now, which was my exact shoes, to where I am now as the lead of a hit TV show that Oprah Winfrey is producing and a Tony-winning musical. It is not only doable, but within their grasp to do that. It’s a perfect parallel that I just did that on Broadway, and you are doing this show in my hometown. You can see we are not that far apart. We are the same. You have every resource at your fingertips if you work hard and you do it.

The second thing is that I have the experience. I’ve done this show a few times. I’ve done it in regional theater. I’ve done it on Broadway. It was actually the first show I saw; we went to the International Thespian Festival. This show has been attached to me.

Q: It’s fortuitous that all these things are coming together at the same time.

A: I can’t believe I get to be there for the kids and to be here to lend a hand.

It is so timely for this community to do a show that is about a community rallying around each other and lifting each other up. It’s now. It’s important. It’s a message of love and hope and faith in people and even in tough times.

My church, Bellevue Church of Christ, is starting something called Operation Lifeline in conjunction with Sarpy County and their Multi Agency Resource Center. It’s really cool. JCPenney is making room for them for all their food boxes and appliances and mattresses. They’re able to be present for people.

Q: You’re on a hit TV show. You were just in a Tony-winning production. You do a lot of voiceover. Do you enjoy that diversity in your career? I ask because you’ll be speaking to these kids and you have experiences in a variety of different mediums.

A: Being a creative person, you’re always evolving and you’re always looking for things to stimulate you. The diversity in what I get to do is really exciting. I can apply that to writing and directing and producing my own films. They’re all under a similar umbrella. The wonderful thing about the industry that I picked is that you’re never going to be bored. There’s always room to improve or embrace or understand a new part of the human condition through your craft.

Q: You’re making the fourth season of “Greenleaf” right now. The show’s been doing well. Is it exciting?

A: I’m in the middle of it. It’s a thrill. I never dreamt that I would be the lead in a TV show and acting opposite Oprah Winfrey. It’s great. The audience is so connected to it and us. It’s a privilege and an honor, and it’s so much fun.

Reporter - Entertainment/music/concert

Kevin Coffey covers music, whether it's pop, indie or punk, through artist interviews, reviews and trend stories. He also occasionally cover other entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @owhmusicguy. Phone: 402-444-1557.

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