Getting to Know Jason Dirden – Pastor Basie Skanks on OWN’s ‘Greenleaf’

Jason Dirden. Photo by Lia Chang
Jason Dirden. Photo by Lia Chang

Jason Dirden is back as Pastor Basie Skanks for season 2 of OWN’s “Greenleaf,” created and executive produced by Emmy-nominated Craig Wright and executive producers Clement Virgo and Oprah Winfrey.

“Greenleaf” is set against the backdrop of a sprawling Memphis megachurch, the journey of estranged daughter and disillusioned preacher Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge), who has returned home after 20 years after the mysterious death of her sister, Faith. As she re-enters the world of Calvary Fellowship World Ministries, the Memphis megachurch run by her powerful parents Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) and Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield), it becomes evident that things are not as virtuous as they seem and that the family’s outward display of faith hides sin and misdeeds.

ATLANTA, GA – MARCH 13: (L-R) Julian Brittano, Parnell Damone Marcanom, T.C. Carson, Jason Dirden, Clement Virgo, Gregory Alan Williams, Merle Dandridge, Desiree Ross, Keith David, Lovie Simone, Lynn Whitfield, Deborah Joy Winans, Kim Hawthorne, and Lamman Rucker attend “Greenleaf” Season 2 Premiere Party at W Atlanta Midtown on March 13, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network)
ATLANTA, GA – MARCH 13: (L-R) Julian Brittano, Parnell Damone Marcanom, T.C. Carson, Jason Dirden, Clement Virgo, Gregory Alan Williams, Merle Dandridge, Desiree Ross, Keith David, Lovie Simone, Lynn Whitfield, Deborah Joy Winans, Kim Hawthorne, and Lamman Rucker attend “Greenleaf” Season 2 Premiere Party at W Atlanta Midtown on March 13, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network)

Craig Wright, creator and executive producer said “Basie is one of our favorite characters on the show because he’s right about almost everything. He’s just wrong about himself. And that to me makes a great, great character.”

Jason Dirden as Pastor Basie Skanks in "Greenleaf."
Jason Dirden as Pastor Basie Skanks in “Greenleaf.”

“Greenleaf” writer Erica Anderson shared, “Basie has an ax to grind with the Bishop. He’s a hustler. He will hustle to gospel. He will do whatever he needs to do to exact his revenge. Even though he almost feels like a big brother or father figure to Jacob, he has his own motives for doing what he’s doing.”

Jason Dirden, Lamman Rucker and Keith David on "Greenleaf."
Jason Dirden, Lamman Rucker and Keith David on “Greenleaf.”

Tune into OWN on Wednesdays at 10/9c or set your DVR to watch “Greenleaf”. After the episode, Dirden will be interviewed on OWN Tonight.

I caught up with Dirden in January at the opening of August Wilson’s JITNEY when he flew in from Atlanta (where “Greenleaf” shoots) to celebrate his brother Brandon J. Dirden’s return to Broadway. Below is my interview with Jason.

Willie Dirden, Deborah Dirden, Jason Dirden, Crystal Dickinson and Brandon J. Dirden at the opening night party of Broadway's JITNEY on January 19, 2017. Photo by Lia Chang
Willie Dirden, Deborah Dirden, Jason Dirden, Crystal Dickinson and Brandon J. Dirden at the opening night party of Broadway’s JITNEY on January 19, 2017. Photo by Lia Chang

Inside the Opening Night Party with JITNEY Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Company

Born and raised in Houston, TX, Jason Dirden has been in or around the arts his whole life. Although he attended many plays his father and older brother were in, it wasn’t until he became an active participant of theater in high school that his love for storytelling would manifest itself.

Brandon and Jason Dirden in Signature Theatre’s 2010 revival of Leslie Lee’s “The First Breeze of Summer.” Photo by Richard Termine.
Brandon and Jason Dirden in Signature Theatre’s 2010 revival of Leslie Lee’s “The First Breeze of Summer.” Photo by Richard Termine.

He attended Morehouse College, graduating with a B.A. in Theater. Following undergrad, Jason attained an M.F.A in Acting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied under Tony Award director Daniel Sullivan.

Brandon J. Dirden, Jason Dirden and Ruben Santiago-Hudson at the opening night party of Broadway's JITNEY on January 19, 2017. Photo by Lia Chang
Brandon J. Dirden, Jason Dirden and Ruben Santiago-Hudson at the opening night party of Broadway’s JITNEY on January 19, 2017. Photo by Lia Chang

Dirden moved to New York and through work, dedication, a love for the craft, and of course, a little bit of luck, he found himself working side by side with many of the artists he admired: Tony Award winners Kenny Leon and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Glynn Turman and Viola Davis to name a few. He appeared on Broadway in the Tony award winning revivals of Fences and A Raisin In The Sun, opposite Denzel Washington. Most recently he starred in the award winning West Coast revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom directed by Phylicia Rashad at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. In addition to “Greenleaf,” Dirden has been seen on Tyler Perry’s “House Of Payne,” and “Elementary.” Dirden is also an active volunteer of the August Wilson Monologue Competition in Los Angeles.

L-R: Jason Dirden, Damon Gupton, Glynn Turman and Keith David in August Wilson’s "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
L-R: Jason Dirden, Damon Gupton, Glynn Turman and Keith David in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Lia: How were you cast for “Greenleaf”?
Jason: Well, I wish I could tell you that I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard… I had $27.32 in my bank account, and was contemplating giving up acting as a career… and then it happened… An all black Cadillac Escalade pulls up beside me, tinted window glides down and Oprah Winfrey pokes her head out and screams “You’re exactly what I’m looking for!”

But that wasn’t the case. My story is far less interesting. It was a one scene self-tape audition that I sent in. Two weeks later, I was informed that I’d gotten the role.

Lia: Who is Basie Skanks?

Lia: What do you like the most working on “Greenleaf”?
Jason: It’s the people! The Greenleaf family is wonderful… It’s such a generous, respectful and immensely talented group of artists, led by Merle Dandridge, Keith David, Lynn Whitfield.

Lia: Had you worked with Keith David before “Greenleaf” or Ma Rainey
Jason: Yes, it wasn’t a full stage production, but it was another August Wilson project. We were both a part of the Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Stephen McKinley Henderson led August Wilson Century Cycle archived readings in 2013. In that project we were a part of the Joe Tuner’s Come and Gone cast, along with S. Epatha Merkerson, Roger Robinson and Taraji P. Henson.

Cast member Keith David, director Phylicia Rashad and cast members Glynn Turman, Lillias White, Jason Dirden and Damon Gupton from August Wilson’'s “"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum at the Los Angeles Music Center. Photo by Luke Fontana.
Cast member Keith David, director Phylicia Rashad and cast members Glynn Turman, Lillias White, Jason Dirden and Damon Gupton from August Wilson’’s “”Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum at the Los Angeles Music Center. Photo by Luke Fontana.

Zon D’Amour of the Los Angeles Sentinel writes, “Rounding out the quartet in a remarkable, breakout performance is Jason Dirden (“Greenleaf”) who revels in the role of the smooth talking, overly confident, trumpeter, Levee. Dirden’s monologues and the dire decision that he makes in the final scene left the audience captivated and at the edge of their seats.”

Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times writes, “Dirden’s performance rises in power as Levee’s anger becomes unhinged. But what’s most admirable about the production is that even when Levee is challenging God in a furious monologue, the other sidemen are right beside him absorbing and reacting as though this theatrical moment belonged equally to them, which it does.”

L-R: Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David and Jason Dirden in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
L-R: Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David and Jason Dirden in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Tony Award-Winner Lillias White, Keith David, Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman and More in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, Directed by Phylicia Rashad at the Mark Taper Forum

Signature’s Revival of The Piano Lesson Sweeps AUDELCO’s with 8 Wins including Best Revival, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Roslyn Ruff, Chuck Cooper and Brandon J. Dirden; Also Among 2013 “VIV” Winners – Wild with Happy’s Colman Domingo and Sharon Washington, and Storyville’s Mercedes Ellington

Lia: You have acted opposite your brother in many productions over the years. What have been your favorites? 

Jason Dirden, Brandon J. Dirden, James A. Williams in Signature's revival of August Wilson's “The Piano Lesson,” directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson in 2012. Photo by Joan Marcus
Jason Dirden, Brandon J. Dirden, James A. Williams in Signature’s revival of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson in 2012. Photo by Joan Marcus

Jason: Without a doubt TOPDOG/UNDERDOG directed by Suzan-Lori Parks. First of all it’s a wonderful play, with two incredible roles.

To be in that process with my brother, while playing brothers was a dream. Brandon is becoming a master of the craft, so to be able to play with him and learn from him was, and always is, a blessing. And I know it made our parents’ hearts smile.

Stage Magazine: A Powerful TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at Two River Theater Company

Brandon J. Dirden (left, as Lincoln) and Jason Dirden (as Booth) in TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, NJ. (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)
Brandon J. Dirden (left, as Lincoln) and Jason Dirden (as Booth) in TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, NJ. (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Lia: What was it like to be directed by Brandon and act opposite Crystal on Seven Guitars at Two River Theater?
Jason: 
Crystal Dickinson is one of the best stage actors I’ve ever worked with. Period. Very few actors are as bold, free and vulnerable as she is. Her Louise stole every freaking scene! She’s an amazing artist.

As for Brandon as a director, well he got lucky. He assembled an incredible cast so all he really had to do was get the hell out of the way and let us do our thing. No seriously, he surprised me. I knew he could give notes to make the acting better, but that’s such a small part of directing. As a first time director, he brought this production together like someone who had been doing it for years. By the way he attacked the work and the way he communicated with all involved, he created and maintained an environment for success on all levels.

Jason Dirden, Charlie Hudson III, Christina Acosta Robinson, director Brandon J. Dirden, Crystal Dickinson and Brittany Bellizeare in rehearsal for Two River Theater’s production of August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS. Photo by Lia Chang
Jason Dirden, Charlie Hudson III, Christina Acosta Robinson, director Brandon J. Dirden, Crystal Dickinson and Brittany Bellizeare in rehearsal for Two River Theater’s production of August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS. Photo by Lia Chang

Patrick Maley of NJ.com writes, “Jason Dirden’s Canewell captures the breath of emotion that gives this play life. He is jovial when relaxing in the yard, assertive when rebuffing Floyd’s pleas for a return to Chicago, warm and vulnerable in his signature “I always did believe in love” speech.”

Jason Dirden, Charlie Hudson III, Brittany Bellizeare and Crystal Dickinson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Jason Dirden, Charlie Hudson III, Brittany Bellizeare and Crystal Dickinson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Opening Night Photos: Brandon J. Dirden helmed SEVEN GUITARS at Two River Theater featuring Jason Dirden, Crystal A. Dickinson, Kevin Mambo, Christina Acosta Robinson, Brian D. Coats, Charlie Hudson III and Brittany Bellizeare 
Photos: In Rehearsal with Seven Guitars’ Director Brandon J. Dirden at Two River Theater

Charlie Hudson III, Jason Dirden, Kevin Mambo, Crystal Dickinson, Brandon J. Dirden, Christina Acosta Robinson, Brittany Bellizeare, Brian D. Coats at the opening night of Two River Theater’s “Seven Guitars,” directed by Brandon J. Dirden on September 18, 2015. Photo by Lia Chang
Charlie Hudson III, Jason Dirden, Kevin Mambo, Crystal Dickinson, Brandon J. Dirden, Christina Acosta Robinson, Brittany Bellizeare, Brian D. Coats at the opening night of Two River Theater’s “Seven Guitars,” directed by Brandon J. Dirden on September 18, 2015. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: Both of you appeared as Levee in productions of Ma Rainey at the same time on opposite coasts. Is this the first time that you have played the same character?
Jason: It’s not the first time we’ve played the same character, but it is the first time we’ve done it simultaneously. I mean the universe was just on our side in that moment.

Brandon J. Dirden plays Levee in the Two River production of August Wilson's “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” at Two River in Red Bank, N.J. © T. Charles Erickson. Jason Dirden as Levee in the Center Theater Group production in Los Angeles. © Craig Schwartz.
Brandon J. Dirden plays Levee in the Two River production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Two River in Red Bank, N.J. © T. Charles Erickson. Jason Dirden as Levee in the Center Theater Group production in Los Angeles. © Craig Schwartz.

Lia: What was your experience on Broadway with Fences and A Raisin in the Sun?
Jason: Let’s see. The opportunity to work with Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Anika Noni Rose, Sophie Okonedo and LaTanya Richardson Jackson… are you kidding me, it was amazing! I’m very thankful that the director, Kenny Leon, trusted me to be a part of both historic moments in American Theater.

In 2016, Dirden appeared Off-Broadway in Atlantic Theater Company’s critically acclaimed, sold out world premiere production of Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, directed by Ruben Santiago Hudson at Atlantic Theater Company.

Jason Dirden and Nikiya Mathis in Atlantic Theater Company’s "Skeleton Crew." Photo by Ahron R. Foster
Jason Dirden and Nikiya Mathis in Atlantic Theater Company’s “Skeleton Crew.” Photo by Ahron R. Foster

Ben Brantley of The New York Times writes, “As Dez, the compelling Mr. Dirden is prickly, randy, dangerous and a born gentleman. And he and Ms. Mathis, who endows her character with a sensual spontaneity that keeps undercutting her justifiable wariness, render Dez and Shanita’s hesitant courtship as a poignant melding of affinity and necessity.”

MAURICE HINES TAPPIN’ THRU LIFE, Dominique Morriseau’s SKELETON CREW, Marjorie Johnson, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tina Fabrique, Joe Morton and Debra Ann Byrd Among 2016 AUDELCO Winners 
Dominique Morisseau’s SKELETON CREW starring Jason Dirden, Wendell B. Franklin, Lynda Gravatt, Nikiya Mathis and Adesola Osakalumi at Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater 
Photos: Jason Dirden, Wendell B. Franklin, Lynda Gravatt, Nikiya Mathis and Adesola Osakalumi in Dominique Morisseau’s SKELETON CREW at Atlantic Theater Company 
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Dominique Morisseau receive 2015 Steinberg Awards at the 8th Annual ‘Mimi’ Awards

Lia: Any dream roles in mind?
Jason: Well, at the moment, I have my eye on the film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that Denzel Washington is doing in conjunction with HBO. I would absolutely love to reprise Levee in this adaptation.

Lia: Any directors or shows you would like to work on?
Jason: Film. I really want to do film. Of course there are many great directors, but I think I would love to work with Ryan Coogler.  I really dig his passion and his desire to put the heart of humanity at the forefront of storytelling.

Lia: What’s next for you?
Jason: Well, immediately, hopefully a third season of “Greenleaf.” I’ve also been writing a film for the past 3 years (you can never have too many re-writes, ha), and I’m in the beginning stages of finding producing partners and funding. I have a dream cast in mind that I won’t reveal at this time, but the core cast would consist of myself, Brandon, Crystal, Brian D. Coats and my father Willie Dirden.

“Greenleaf” also stars Lamman Rucker, Deborah Joy Winans, Kim Hawthorne, Tye White, GregAlan Williams, Desiree Ross, Lovie Simone. “Greenleaf” is produced for OWN by Lionsgate in association with Harpo Films and Pine City.

The first of eight episodes of the new season debuted on March 15th. The remaining eight episodes of the series’ second season will air in summer 2017. “Greenleaf” premiered last June as the #1 series debut in OWN history and was 2016’s #1 new cable series for women, averaging over three million viewers in Live+3 in its first season. http://www.greenleafown.tv/.

Follow Jason on Instagram and Twitter at @jasondirden.

Denise Burse Guest Stars on “Greenleaf”

Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang_photo by Garth Kravits
Lia Chang_photo by Garth Kravits

Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers,  musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.

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