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"Law & Order' Star,
Seeking a Little Justice

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 1998

  Style Showcase
    Merkerson Merkerson plays Lt. Van Buren on NBC's crime drama "Law and Order." (Stephen Denelian)
It only takes a few seconds with S. Epatha Merkerson to realize that she's not some unflappable, no-frills, career-cop type. She just plays one on TV.

Recognizable to millions of fans as police Lt. Anita Van Buren on NBC's grown-up Wednesday night crime drama, "Law & Order," Merkerson differs from her efficiently appointed character in style, but not substance: Both women know how to lay it on the line.

"I came into this business with no illusions, especially about television," Merkerson says. "It's very stereotyped."

For example, the African twists that caress Merkerson's shoulders would never grace Van Buren's head. It's not that she wouldn't dig them, she just realized they'd never cut it in her climb to the top. So Van Buren opts for the Gentle Treatment – no-lye – relaxer look, and Merkerson tucks her unprocessed hair under a wig.

"What Van Buren realized is what sisters have had to – sometimes, you have to make yourself palatable to people so you can keep your job."

Merkerson has just wrapped up her fifth season on "Law & Order," which last September won an Emmy for best dramatic series. For the past four years, she has split her time between New York and the Prince George's County home she shares with her husband, Toussaint Jones, a social worker who runs a foster-care monitoring program in the District. This season, the 45-year-old actress is spending her hiatus from filming "Law & Order" playing a fifty-something spinster who takes a chance on love in the Studio Theatre production of "The Old Settler." The play begins a five-week run tomorrow.

While "Law & Order" brings a nice paycheck and recognition in the frozen-food aisle at Safeway, the former serial-understudy and bit-part veteran knows that in her business, fortunes can be fleeting. She's proud of the fact that acting has always been her day job, especially when "working black actress" can seem a contradiction in terms. But even the success of "Law & Order" can't erase the lessons learned during lean years. Although Merkerson doesn't have to fight as hard to find roles these days, she often fights to bring something of herself and her world to the roles she plays.

And sometimes those battles can seem just as fierce.

Working Toward Reality

At Studio Theatre during rehearsal recently, Merkerson was busy working out a few kinks. A scene between her character, Elizabeth, and the young boarder she takes in concludes, and Merkerson exclaims, "Damn, that was rough."

"It wasn't, actually," begins director and Washington native Seret Scott before Merkerson interrupts her with raucous laughter.

"It was stink," the actress says good-naturedly, eliciting giggles from cast and crew. It's the first full week of rehearsals and Merkerson, who has earned a Tony Award nomination and an Obie, says she's been starving for the chance to delve into a new character.

"I'm a theater person," she says. "That's where the work is done. That's where you get up there and find out what you're made of as an actor. . . . It's like riding a bike. Every machine needs to be oiled and I think mine was getting squeaky."

Merkerson says "the real challenge will be fitting a '90s woman into a '40s body." She is trying to understand the mind-set of her character, a domestic, and the mores of her time. For instance, she says, "these dolls would go to work in shirtwaist dresses, heels and gloves, then when they got to work, they would change" into maid's uniforms. By contrast, she exclaims, "I got the pants, the hair, the attitude – whoooooo!"

Merkerson, a Detroit native, has spent much of this decade becoming a recognizable screen actress. She's had television roles in "Pee-wee's Playhouse" and the Hallmark production "A Place for Annie," and feature film parts in "Loose Cannons" with Gene Hackman and "Terminator 2."

The time has also been spent as Anita Van Buren.

Off camera, Merkerson sports earth tones. The deliberately crumpled fabric of her loose blouse and wide-leg pants gives her an appearance of constant movement, and she often kicks off her sandals to flex her toes in between scenes.

She is funny, bawdy and intimate in an in-your-personal-space kind of way, leaning close or touching your arm to make a point. When searching for words to describe her screen alter-ego, she pauses. "I cuss a lot, so I have to say this without cussing," Merkerson says. "[Van Buren] is no-nonsense, extremely tight, and she doesn't take any [expletive] . . ." (Let the record reflect, it was an earnest attempt.)

"She's not insecure," she adds. "In a lot of ways, I think we play ourselves."

Merkerson says she typically works two to four days a week on a single episode of "Law & Order." Although there are satisfying moments, the emotional investment can be "superficial," she says. "I rehearse, they put my wig on, I get dressed, we rehearse again, maybe twice, and we shoot."

Still, Merkerson says, since the series began she has slowly been able to add depth to her character. Some episodes, such as one in which she shot a kid who was trying to rob her at an ATM machine, reveal her character in a fuller light – as a mother, as a concerned black woman – but those shows don't come her way often.

And they can be counterbalanced by episodes like November's "Blood," in which a black character who is passing for white and his white wife have a very dark-skinned child. Genetically improbable in reality, Merkerson says. Although she says she lobbied passionately against making the baby so dark, ultimately the execs overruled her. A letter from a furious black viewer, blaming her for not enlightening her colleagues, added to her anger.

"We try to do shows that are correct. Not politically correct, not artistically correct, but correct in reality," she says. "It's the minutiae, those little things that present themselves in our culture that I've spent my career fighting for."

As Van Buren, she's spent this season fighting discrimination. In a continuing subplot, the character was passed over for a promotion while a white woman who received the same score on the captain's exam, but had less seniority, got the job. It's a story line Merkerson has seen before. In the late 1970s, her mother, Ann Merkerson, a postal supervisor in Detroit, was replaced in her job by a young white woman who had no seniority, and whom she had trained. Ann Merkerson sued and eventually won, and that fight informed her daughter's outlook.

Merkerson says the writers had already planned a discrimination story line for Van Buren's character, but "they were going to make it look as if Van Buren was incompetent. And Van Buren has been wrong, but she's never been incompetent," she says.

To her satisfaction, after relaying her mother's story, Merkerson was able to get the story line turned around. "More times than not this is what competent black folks have had to deal with," Merkerson says.

As a fine arts student at Wayne State University, Merkerson says, she was treated to a course in advanced reality mixed in with her Theater 101, an education within an education.

"I was always at schools where I was the only black student. I would get good roles in small theaters, not in the main theaters. And I've played all the supporting roles in musicals . . ."

In college, "I learned about the politics of theater when I was paying for them to teach me and give me [acting] experience," she says earnestly, leaning in close. But, Merkerson says, she used the experience to her advantage, learning her craft and "how to function in the real world, how to lobby, how to fund-raise, how to keep the money coming in."

Enjoying the Perks

As she rides the up escalator at Union Station after an afternoon spent lunching and granting a couple of interviews, a guy on his way down stares at Merkerson. Then he smiles. Then he calls out, "Excuse me, aren't you an actress or something?"

Merkerson, who says fans of "Law & Order" usually recognize her immediately while others think she works at the Wal-Mart or goes to their Sunday school, smiles. "I'm an actress, yes."

The guy continues to grin and stare, star-struck, on his way down, and Merkerson fills in the blank. "Do you watch 'Law & Order?' "

"That's it!" he says, snapping his fingers as he exits to his floor. "Nice meeting you. Good luck."

Merkerson just smiles and waves. These days, she enjoys some of the perks of a highly rated network series. There's the occasional gleaming black Town Car that comes to fetch her from rehearsal, complimentary suites at the Watergate, and first-class travel, but she says she tries hard to remember where she came from. "It's a job and I worked hard to get here, but I'm not fooled by it – it could be gone tomorrow. I'm not going to let it make me something I'm not."

If you ask, S. Epatha Merkerson may grudgingly reveal what the S stands for. But it might as well be "Sworn to secrecy," or "Swear to shut up," because she won't let you publish the name. It's perfectly respectable, but somehow you just know it never really fit.

On the other hand, Epatha, she explains, "is from the New Testament and means to be open as in speech and sight." And as she leans close to make a point, hold a steady gaze or fire off an impromptu riff from the soundtrack of "Superfly," you get the feeling the role of Epatha was perfectly cast.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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