The role in the Tony-winning musical, the acting career, the workshop with students from the school district where she graduated, the flooding, the community outpouring, the opportunity to reconnect — Merle Dandridge believes it’s all “God-ordained.”
Dandridge, a 1993 Papillion-La Vista High School graduate, has made a career as a Broadway and television actress and she returned to the area last weekend to conduct an acting workshop Saturday with students at Papillion-La Vista South High School.
The workshop was to help students with their production of “Once on This Island,” a Tony-award winning musical in which Dandridge played a major role.
It’s a musical Dandridge said fits the time and place well because it begins with a storm and people coming together to care for one another, similar to how the Sarpy County community has mobilized since last month’s historic flooding. While she was in the area she also reconnected with her former church to help coordinate flood relief efforts at a multi-agency resource center at Southroads Technology Center in Bellevue and celebrated her mother’s birthday.
“It’s a great joy that everything has converged at the same time,” Dandridge said.
“I love that the kids in Papillion are doing this when the community is trying to come pick up the pieces.”
The path to an acting career started when she was in high school and she was trying to decide what elective class to take. A friend from youth group suggested she take a drama class, Dandridge said, and it set the tone for her future creative life. She enjoyed the talented people around her and made lifelong friends and enjoyed winning state in a one-act play.
“I found a tribe. I found a place to get out my quirks and get out the creative energy I had,” she said.
From there she studied theater in college in Chicago and embarked on a 10-year run acting on Broadway, during which she toured the United States and Europe six times on productions from “Spamalot” and “Rent” to “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Eventually, she added television acting to her repertoire, landing roles on “Sons of Anarchy,” “Murphy Brown” and most notably as Grace Greenleaf on the Oprah Winfrey Network’s “Greenleaf.”
“TV kind of found me when I was out on the road and it stuck,” she said.
Dandridge said she has always stayed close to the district and helps out any time she gets a chance to work with students. She was elected to the PLCS Distinguished Alum Hall of Fame in 2012.
She said she enjoyed working with them because when she was in high school she didn’t have an example of how a high school student could become a full-time actress.
“I can connect those dots for them,” she said.
Acting and the arts are a good way to reflect what is happening in society and tell stories that bring people together, even in a divisive political climate, just like a community helping flood victims.
“We are able as actors to reflect back something with a spoonful of sugar,” she said.