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Unfinished Storylines and Black Hair Moments: What ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Gets Right and Wrong About Its Black Characters

Kelly McCreary is the latest Black actor to happily announce their departure from the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.”

She has played the intelligent, innovative role of Dr. Maggie Pierce, the half-sister of Ellen Pompeo’s character Meredith Gray for the past nine seasons. Her farewell episode aired on April 13, but McCreary said she embraces closing her character’s chapter.

“To spend nine years exploring a character inside and out, while reaching a global audience with impactful stories, is a rare gift. It has afforded me an opportunity to collaborate with, learn from, and be inspired by countless brilliant artists both in front of and behind the camera,” she shared in a statement with The Hollywood Reporter. “Playing Maggie Pierce has been one of the true joys of my life and I leave with profound gratitude for every step of this journey. I am excited for this next chapter, and what the future holds.”

(L-R) Kelly McCreary as Maggie Pierce, Chandra Wilson as Miranda Bailey, Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey, and James Pickens Jr. as Richard Webber. (Photos: @seekellymccreary/Instagram; @greysabc/Instagram)

The television series revolves around a group of exceptional residents, doctors and surgeons at Grey Sloan Memorial, formerly known and introduced in 2005 as Seattle Grace Hospital.

Each day and moment is different as the staff endures and deals with daily life-or-death situations and consequences — in their personal and professional lives. But amid the chaos, they find comfort and solace in the friendships they’ve created while learning at one of the top medical training facilities in the world.

According to one fan’s speculation, Maggie’s departure was planned ahead of the new season airing earlier this year. That person said, “…Kelly announced to the writers and producers before they writed this season which is why they have Maggie and Winston marriage troubles as a storyline.” 

On the hit ABC show, Maggie found love and married Dr. Winston Ndugu, played by Anthony Hill. Her character’s ending centered on her taking a chance on herself to leave her family behind to pursue a phenomenal career opportunity in Chicago. 

After 200 episodes and nine seasons as Meredith Grey’s half-sister, McCreary’s exit has raised questions about the treatment of Black actors, their storylines and their exits on the long-running series.  

The hit show created by Shonda Rhimes is intense, dramatic, and compelling in the many ways it connects with various audiences and tackles challenging subjects. Some characters were killed off in dramatic endings, and some were given a proper farewell episode with respect to their nature.

Even Rhimes herself left ABC in 2017, following disagreements about budget, content and more. Not to mention, Pompeo previously admitted the first 10 years of “Grey’s Anatomy” created a “toxic work environment.”

Related: After 12 Years with ABC, Shonda Rhimes Is Heading to Netflix

But many wonder why a show that has been on for nearly two decades is hanging onto its last two Black main characters. 

Over 20 cast members either have been fired or left the famous show, which is currently airing in its 19th season. Many have walked away for creative reasons or behind-the-scenes matters; however, there are currently only two original cast members left: Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr.

Some “Grey’s Anatomy” cast members had planned exits. Yet, a few joined as series regulars but ventured off into spinoffs, dealt with contract renewals or mysteriously disappeared.

In seasons three and five, Taye Diggs appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy” as Dr. Sam Bennett, a friend of Dr. Addison Montgomery. His success there segued into a role on the spinoff, “Private Practice,” from 2007 to 2013.

Actor Brandon Scott played surgical resident and intern Ryan Spalding in season five between 2008 and 2009 and magically disappeared early on in season six. He went on to star on Netflix’s “Dead To Me,” “13 Reasons Why,” and another popular ABC sitcom, “This Is Us.” 

Actor Jason Winston George appeared as attending anesthesiologist Ben Warren in season six in 2009. He eventually shifted his focus from surgical resident at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital to pursuing another passion. Warren went on to become a firefighter, and joined the “Grey’s Anatomy” firefighters spinoff “Station 19” in 2018. Both television shows sparingly air crossover episodes.

Between 2012 and 2014, actor Gaius Charles played Shane Ross, the cocky intern turned resident who nearly killed himself by working too much and too hard to impress his superiors. His contract was not renewed, despite his joining as a series regular.  

Shane had a meltdown on the show as he got close to another character, his mentor Cristina, and followed her to work on a groundbreaking medical project in Zurich. Charles went on to star in “Taken,” “Queens,” “The Wonder Years,” and films such as “Alice.” Actor Lance Gross lasted for a few episodes as Maggie’s love interest, Ethan Boyd, in 2015.

Aside from being critical of the character’s exits, fans on social media also have criticized the hairstyling choices of the Black characters on the show. 

Bailey evolved from an aggressive and passionate resident to chief of Surgery. For her introduction in 2005, fans saw her mostly wear a bob hairstyle with curled ends and distressed or relatively thin bangs. She often switches up her look with wigs, braids and crochet hairstyles.

As Dr. Pierce, McCreary proudly rocked her natural hair and, through her versatile styles, inspired other Black women to do the same. She wore twist-outs, braids, wigs, crochet hair, other natural hairstyles and silk wraps during different scenes. Fans following Maggie’s hair journey took notice of the fullness and length of her hair that increased over time, noting how beautiful and “soothing” it’s been to watch. 

“In person, online, I get so many thankful black girls who are happy to see representation of a woman who looks like them,” McCreary told Hollywood Life during a panel in 2020. “What I feel like they mean by that is, she’s not super done up. She’s not a bombshell and she looks like somebody that they could also be. Not a fantasy of a person.” 

She added, “What I get from the audience is that it’s comforting to see themselves reflected.” 

After Dr. Pierce, other Black female characters wore thick curly afros, including Dr. Stephanie Edwards, though she straightened her hair a few times. Newbie Simone Griffith currently rocks a large curly afro, and there are the occasional guest appearances from other Black female stars who also wear protective styles.

One fan tweeted, “Is this wig written into the contract for all black female characters on #GreysAnatomy.” Another wrote, “The black characters on greys anatomy always have the worst wigs on!”

Here’s a list of the remaining Black actors on “Grey’s Anatomy” and those who came and survived: 

  • Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) 

Chandra Wilson plays Dr. Miranda Bailey, who has worked closely together with Dr. Richard Webber throughout their time on the show, though Dr. Webber serves more as her mentor. The two also look to each other for advice and support during trying times.  

In an interview with People magazine, Wilson expressed her desire to continue moving forward on the show she has been part of since the pilot aired.  

“I used to say, ‘I’m there until the wheels fall off until the very, very end, and it can’t last that much longer, right?’ And then we keep going,” she told the outlet. “For now, I’m challenging myself to be there until the very last episode, the very last day, the very last scene.” 

  • Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) 

Fans and many on the show view Dr. Richard Webber as the heart and soul of Grey Sloan Memorial. He has decades of medical experience as a trainer and, as the former chief of surgery, has an answer for anything his staff might ask. He’s great at giving life advice and as stubborn as they come when it comes to staying on top of his own health and wellness. He married Dr. Catherine Avery Fox in season 11, who supported him through a life-changing surgery.

  • Dr. Catherine Avery Fox (Debbie Allen)

In 2011, Allen joined “Grey’s Anatomy” in season eight as Dr. Catherine Avery Fox. As founder and current board chairman of the Catherine Fox Foundation, she frequently uses her power to take over medical facilities and surgery rooms when she pleases. Allen directed a few episodes before being promoted to one of the show’s executive producers for season 12 in 2015. By season 15, Allen’s character developed cancer and went through a life-changing surgery. Her cancer has now returned in season 19, and fans are suspicious that her time on the show is slowly coming to an end.

  • Simone Griffin (Alexis Floyd) 

After her breakout role in the 2022 drama “Inventing Anna,” Alexis Floyd joined “Grey’s Anatomy” as a series regular for season 19. She plays Dr. Simone Griffin, a witty, smart and intelligent overachiever and surgical intern. Thus far, viewers have learned about her personal history with Grey Sloan Memorial. Griffin later admitted to Dr. Webber that her mother died in the same hospital while giving birth to her.

  • Dr. Winston Ndugu (Anthony Hill)

Dr. Winston Ndugu first appeared in season 16 in 2020, as Dr. Maggie Pierce’s love interest. He trained at Tufts Medical Center, but now Dr. Ndugu is an attending cardiothoracic surgeon at Grey Sloan. His crush developed into real love, and the couple wed in season 17. However, their relationship was put through the wringer in season 18, which led to addressing their marital issues in counseling. Winston insisted Maggie stay in Seattle and not take the job in Chicago, but ultimately, she still left.

  • Dr. Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) 

After joining season six in 2009 as one of the handsome yet annoying Mercy West interns, Jackson Avery became one of the show’s most beloved characters as the son of Dr. Catherine Avery Fox. Jackson’s 2021 exit in season 17 revolved around a move to Boston to run the family Harper Avery Foundation.  

Williams spoke more about his character in a separate interview, stating he was “really proud of being able to humanize things that are always projected to be so polarizing and far away in our society.” 

“Being able to look at the way these last couple episodes how he went out, these are really polarizing topics: racism, police brutality, racial inequality in medicine, discrimination,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “These are things that people put their head in the sand, deny and argue about and have been political punching bags.” He added, “And this character and his journey has connected with people from all walks of life.” 

Since leaving the show, Williams has appeared on other TV shows and in productions, such as the Broadway revival of “Take Me Out,” which sees him as a professional baseball player who comes out as gay. 

Williams returned in season 18 briefly to reprise the role that earned him an NAACP Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor In a Drama Series.  

  • Jason Myers, a.k.a Chest Peckwell (Charles Michael Davis) 

“The Originals” actor Charles Michael Davis played Jason Myers in season nine in 2013. He had a brief fling with a white female character on the show, but his time was short-lived.

In episode 22 of that season, titled “Readiness Is All,” Dr. Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington) detailed an argument with Myers, who accused her of being untrustworthy and lying about who she was. She alleged that he grabbed her arm during the fight, and when she fought him off, he fell backward, hitting his head on the fireplace.  

Myers talked about pressing charges after waking up in the hospital recovering from surgery to fix a brain bleed. But Alex talked or instead “blackmailed” him out of it. Myers insisted Jo attacked him, but the story was never further investigated, and fans never saw Myers again.

  • Dr. Stephanie Edwards (Jerrika Hinton) 

Jerrika Hinton first introduced herself as part of “Grey’s Anatomy” around season eight as a recurring cast member. In 2017, she made her final appearance, and it was a decision that was shocking to some fans online, due to rumors of her pre-planned exit. 

Years prior, Jerrika Hinton and the showrunner had “a very lengthy and gratifying and really splendid conversation about work and creative process,” said Hinton, according to Variety. Shonda Rhimes echoed a lot of what Hinton said, claiming that she was “proud” of the actress for the work they accomplished and accepted that she was ready to move on to different projects. 

“Actors evolve differently and when an actor like Jerrika comes to me and says she wants to try something new creatively, I like to honor that,” Rhimes told Entertainment Weekly.  

At the end of season 13, in the episode titled “True Colors,” Stephanie finds herself in harms way after being held hostage by an accused rapist, who was on the loose in the hospital.

When Bailey put the hospital on lockdown, Stephanie found herself stuck in a corridor with the man and a young girl. Keith resorted to starting a fire to set off the sprinkler system in hopes of triggering all the alarms and unlocking the doors.  

To save herself and the girl, Stephanie ruthlessly doused Keith with enough gasoline to set him ablaze. He stumbles into some flammable tanks nearby, causing tanks to explode and the hospital to be evacuated.  

Stephanie suffered severe burns on her arms, face and legs but somehow made it to the roof of the burning building, where she began trying to save the young girl.

  • Dr. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) 

Acting vet Isaiah Washington was let go after reportedly hurling a homophobic slur on set during a dispute with castmate T.R. Knight in 2007. He portrayed one of the original main characters, Dr. Preston Burke, during the first three seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Washington initially denied the allegations and later issued an apology for his actions. 

In season three, Burke abandoned Cristina, played by Sandra Oh, at the altar. Then, he just took off to Zurich, Switzerland, where he eventually won a Harper Avery award and opened his own hi-tech hospital.

Burke started his life over, got married, started a family, and then in season 10 in 2014, he invited Cristina — a way to wrap up her storyline — to run his hospital while he retired. Washington since has held roles as Thelonious Jaha on The CW’s “The 100,” followed by the role of Mayor Tydell Ruffin for Starz’ critically acclaimed series “P-Valley.” 

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