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.)
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.
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Merle Dandridge arrives at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles.
Merle Dandridge arrives during the Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest on Jan. 31 in Atlanta.
Merle Dandridge arrives at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles.
Merle Dandridge sings “Tarzan” hit song “You’ll Be in My Heart” to Golden Hills Elementary School students on Monday morning. Dandridge said the song was written for her by Phil Collins. A Golden Hills graduate, she returned home to the district to be inducted into the Papillion-La Vista Hall of Fame during a 2012 event.
Dandridge performs with students from Papillion-La Vista and Papillion-La Vista South High Schools in 2014. She’s a Papillion-La Vista graduate.
Dandridge, left, had a recurring role on the NBC medical drama “The Night Shift,” appearing in 15 episodes as EMT Gwen Gaskin.
Merle Dandridge, left, appears with Sarah Michelle Gellar in a 2011 episode of the series "Ringer."
"Spamalot" cast member Merle Dandridge poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on July 8, 2009.
Annie Wersching, left, stars as Renee and Merle Dandridge portrays Kristin Smith in a February 2001 episode of "24."
Merle Dandridge attends the Black Girls Rock! Awards at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 2018.
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.
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1. “Omaha,” Waylon Jennings
“Omaha, you’ve been weighin’ heavy on my mind”
On a tune written by Billy Joe Shaver, Jennings sings about leaving Omaha for better places only to realize it was a mistake. After some jailtime in California, the song reckons that it’s time to return to Nebraska.
2. “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis,” Tom Waits
“I went back to Omaha to live with my folks”
As the titular prostitute notes, everyone she used to know is either dead or in prison. In this tune, Omaha represents its own kind of prison, so she moves back to Minneapolis. Oof. (Of course, the truth we find in the song’s last line is rougher than anything.)
“Omaha stylee, did not think there was one”
The Omaha-bred rock band dishes about how it comes from a town where “the shows are more fun.” For years, 311 has used this song as its concert opener as a salute to its hometown. “We’re proud of where we came from, and we know how we feel and we kinda want to write a song that there’s no doubt where this band is from,” drummer Chad Sexton told The World-Herald about writing the song.
4. “We’re an American Band,” Grand Funk Railroad
“Four young chiquitas in Omaha/Waitin’ for the band to return from the show”
There’s nothing quite like a hotel party after the show, and that’s what those chiquitas were after. They wanted to meet the boys in the band and, as the song says, “tear that hotel down.”
5. “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” Bob Dylan
“And I’m gonna ride into Omaha on a horse/Out to the country club and the golf course”
Dylan depicts Omaha as a sleepy town where he’s gonna waltz in with the New York Times and “blow their minds.” Maybe in 1964, when he wrote the song.
6. “Omaha,” Counting Crows
“Omaha/Somewhere in middle America”
Adam Duritz wrote “Omaha” long before the Counting Crows recorded it, but he thought his other bands could never quite get the feel right. He loved “Omaha” by Moby Grape as well as R.E.M.’s cover of it, and he loved the sound of the word.
7. “Turn the Page,” Bob Seger
"On a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha"
Seger and his band were always annoyed that their long hair attracted so much attention.
“I wrote that song in 1971. We were in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and we got accosted by some traveling salesmen,” Seger told The World-Herald in 2011. “The salesmen were calling us girls and everything. ... (The Rolling Stones) were going through the same thing at the same time we were. They were in the South, but ours happened in the North, in Wisconsin.”
But why the Omaha mention?
“We didn’t get much west of Omaha because we weren’t very big at the time,” Seger said, laughing. “We were always east of Omaha!”
8. “Omaha,” Damien Jurado
“The land of Nebraska is beautiful at night”
An Omaha man hits the road with his three kids.
9. “Omaha, Nebraska,” Groucho Marx
“There’s a place called Omaha, Nebraska/in the foothills of Tennessee”
This silly song depicts a forlorn man who says his sweetie promised to love him precisely “when the snow falls in Montana and it’s raining in Peru.” So, never.
Listed as No. 95 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest guitar songs of all time, this tune doesn’t actually mention our city except in its title. But it is a seriously awesome jam with three guitarists battling it out. It also inspired Counting Crows' "Omaha."
11. “Omaha,” They Might Be Giants
“Sokol Auditorium/Party in the night time/...Sokol Auditorium/Psychedelic light show”
On its album, “Venue Songs,” They Might Be Giants provided 31 songs that were written and recorded at each venue of its 2004 tour.
12. “Omaha,” Everly Brothers
“Everything’s there, my love and my laughter/It’s all in Omaha”
Omaha is a city of romance. Just ask the Everly Brothers. Some wonderful relationship happened in Omaha, which causes this song’s subject to forget anything that ever happened to him elsewhere.
13.“Hello in There,” John Prine
“John and Linda live in Omaha”
Growing old can be lonely, and Prine spells it out in detail, up to and including when his kids grow up and move to Omaha.
14. “(Ready or Not) Omaha Nebraska,” Bowling for Soup
“And now it’s two men on, two men gone, batter up/Ready or not, Omaha, Nebraska”
This is basically a song advertising baseball and Omaha that was commissioned for ESPN’s coverage of the College World Series. Bowling for Soup lead singer Jaret Reddick told The World-Herald that he wrote it in just a few minutes. “We do a bunch of stuff for film and TV and that sort of special-order thing,” he said.
15. “Global a Go-Go,” Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros
“Cuz tonight, Bo Diddley’s in Finland Station/Sun Ra’s in Omaha”
The former Clash frontman basically calls out all the places his music can reach, and Omaha is one of more than 20 spots he mentions, including Saturn, Acapulco and Sierra Leone.
16. “Going Nowhere Slow,” Bloodhound Gang
“Jackson, Omaha, Des Moines, Boise, Providence, Chicago”
Bloodhound Gang’s pump-up jam about all the places they’ll rock includes 15 rhyming lines of cities they rock. Except New Jersey. They won’t go there.
17. “Help Save the Youth of America,” Billy Bragg
“Omaha will burn with them”
The whole country is going down the tubes, and Bragg uses Omaha to represent that not only are the coasts going to burn, but so is the middle of the country.
18. “Letter From Omaha,” Josh Ritter
“Sent me a letter from Omaha”
Josh Ritter weaves a story about missing someone with lots of imagery of farm fields and sewing. We’re pretty sure Omaha just sounded cool.
19. “Uneasy Rider,” Charlie Daniels
“I wonder if anybody’d think I’d flipped/If I went to L.A., via Omaha”
Daniels’ poor experience in Mississippi causes him to rethink his route for next time.
20. “Shower,” The Mountain Goats
“The blackest storm I ever saw was coming in from Omaha”
As he frequently did, John Darnielle wrote about a dark day that could be washed away only by a shower.
21. “The Great Salt Lake,” Band of Horses
“Everybody listen we will be the next Omaha”
Frontman Ben Bridwell wrote this tune about a South Carolina reservoir and the people hanging out around there, and one of them posits that their town could one day reach the heights of Omaha’s music scene.
22. “The Simultaneous Occurrence of True Love and Nausea at an Omaha Burger King, Oct. 12, 1992,” Simon Joyner
“That’s love to me/It occurs every day in Burger Kings”
Joyner’s lo-fi acoustic composition sounds like every awkward crush we had in high school.
23. “Greater Omaha,” Desaparecidos
“Out west they’re moving dirt/To make a greater Omaha”
Conor Oberst circa 2002 sings about his home city and how commercialized everything has become. It’s not a good view.
24. “Leaving Omaha,” The Good Life
“I was moving up and out/Out of Omaha/Oh, it didn’t last”
As many high schoolers do, Tim Kasher dreamed of getting out of Omaha after graduation. He did, but he came back. That sounds like it was a bad thing, but he sounds happy about it by the end of the song: “I’ve got to get back over that bridge/...I guess that’s where I’ll stay.”
25. “The Execution of All Things,” Rilo Kiley
“Then we’ll go to Omaha, to work and exploit the booming music scene”
That’s kinda what the band did when it signed up with Saddle Creek Records.