Deborah Joy Winans has an acting career full of familiarity.
The Detroit native has played her famous aunt Cece Winans in the Lifetime Whitney Houston biopic “Whitney” and the musical stage play “Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story.” Her older brother Juan Winans stars as BeBe in the production, which will be performed in Washington, D.C., starting July 1.
Art will continue to mimic life for Winans, a Renaissance High School and Wayne State University graduate, when she co-stars in the new OWN drama “Greenleaf.”
On the series, set in Memphis, she’s Charity Greenleaf-Satterlee, the youngest daughter of Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David, “ER” and “The Princess and the Frog”) and first lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield, “The Josephine Baker Story”).
Oprah Winfrey is executive producing the series and has a recurring role as Mavis, Mae’s sister.
“Charity sings and she loves the Lord, she grew up in a church family and is essentially who I am and that sounded great when I heard about the audition,” said Winans, 32, adding that the similarities were exciting to explore. Like her character, she is also married.
“It’s not too close to home. It’s a blessing to do something that I already know and that I already love. It just made it a lot more real for me.”
Winans wants potential viewers to know that “Greenleaf” is a not a commentary on the black church.
“People have been wondering if the church is going to like it but it’s not about that,” Winans said. “The church is the backdrop but this is a dynamic show and it’s about family. It’s a dysfunctional black family that happens to be in a megachurch.”
Winans’ warmth and candor has made her a beloved cast member on “Greenleaf,” said Tye White, who also is a Detroit native. White, a graduate of Brother Rice High School in Birmingham and the University of Michigan, co-stars as Charity’s husband, Kevin, a guy who is far from the perfect spouse he appears to be. His acting credits include “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”
“We clicked at first over Detroit and quickly became friends,” White said. “Deborah Joy is dope.”
“Before I met her, I saw the Winans name and Googled her. Now that I know her, we have so much fun. She’s amazing to work with and the chemistry is real that you see between us.”
When it comes to her family’s famous last name and vocal abilities, Winans has both and will be singing on “Greenleaf,” even if it was an adjustment for her, she said.
“It’s probably a surprise, but I had never been in the studio to sing anything,” said Winans, who is one of six children of Carvin Winans, a member of the Grammy-winning gospel quartet the Winans.
“Singing has never been my passion. I’ve always loved acting, so I got my BFA at Wayne State, and then I went to the California Institute of the Arts to get my MFA. So when this came along, I was like, ‘I think I can do it, but I haven’t spent time working on that.’ So it was fun; challenging, but fun.
“People assume that because I’m a Winans that I sing all the time, but that is so not the case.
“I told God, ‘OK, I’m not going to sing, I’m going to act.’ And then the two big things I get to work on involve singing. Clearly, the Lord had other plans.”
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV writer and critic.
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