Longtime Actor Discusses Race on the Screen and Stage

S. Epatha Merkerson is famous for her work on the small screen, as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on television's Law & Order. But it's her work in theater that's in the spotlight now; she may win a Tony Award on Sunday for her starring role in a revival of Come Back, Little Sheba. Merkerson reflects on her career, and the challenge of bringing diverse audiences to the theater.

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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. If you are a fan of "Law & Order," and who isn't, then you know actress S. Epatha Merkerson, better known as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, the tough, but tender boss on television's "Law & Order." She's the longest-running black character in the history of the small screen. She also won an Emmy award for her performance in a 2006 television movie, "Lackawanna Blues." And now another honor may be in her grasp. She's up for a Tony award this Sunday for her starring role in the revival of the American stage classic, "Come Back, Little Sheba." And S. Epatha Merkerson joins me now. Welcome, it's so great to talk to you.

Ms. S. EPATHA MERKERSON (Actress, "Law & Order"): Thank you, it's great to be with you.

MARTIN: For those who are not familiar with the play, and with your character Lola Delaney, could you just give us a brief description?

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, it was written in the fifties by William Inge, and it's a story of lost love, faded dreams. The story surrounds the marriage of Lola and Doc Delaney, and a young boarder who comes to their home, and what happens after she's been there for a while.

MARTIN: And this is the second of another play that's on Broadway, which was originally conceived for white actors, that has now been cast in a different way. Do you think that this kind of casting changes the interpretation of the play?

Ms. MERKERSON: It has to because, you know, we live in a world of race and gender and all of that business, and I think it does make a difference. I think people came to see me knowing that I was going to be in the play, but the writing was so compelling that shortly after making the recognition, they just got into the lives of Doc and Lola. And I think that's how it makes it interesting. Because you get into the characters, and then when you leave you might have a conversation about, you know, an interracial couple in the fifties and where would they live and those types of things. I think it provokes thought and allows people to have interesting conversation.

MARTIN: You know, I talked to Debbie Allen about this, who directed "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which is the other play currently on Broadway which was clearly not written with African-American actors in mind. It's set in a plantation house in Mississippi, you know, in the fifties. And one of the things she said is that this kind of casting, as you were indicating, brings people to the theatre who otherwise might not be interested in these plays. But how did you feel about that? I mean, obviously it's an honor to have people want to come to see you. But is it sort of painful in a way, that there aren't more plays that are specifically directed towards people of color, on Broadway? I don't know.

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, you know, it's important that we're represented on Broadway, and not only in revivals of plays and the classics, but also in plays that are written by African-American writers. It's important that Broadway, you know, look like the world at large. And one of the wonderful things that happened this season was that there were these wonderful revivals and then there were shows that came in like "Passing Strange" and "In the Heights" that brought a whole other group of people to the theater. And it's important that it is inclusive. And maybe it'll help that phrase, the great white way, maybe we can change that phrase.

MARTIN: It is a bit, yeah.

Ms. MERKERSON: You know, so that it is inclusive and I think that's what was so fabulous about, and what is fabulous about, what's going on Broadway this season.

MARTIN: Speaking of inclusive, it's worth noting that this is your second Tony award nomination. You were nominated in 1995 for your work in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson."

Ms. MERKERSON: I wish it was 95. We have to go back another five years, it was 1990. It was the 89-90 season.

MARTIN: 1990.

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah, it had been 17 years since I'd been on Broadway, so.

MARTIN: Why has it been 17 years since you've been on Broadway?

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, part of that has a lot to do with "Law & Order." And then, you know, I've been doing a lot of off-Broadway theater. And there just hasn't been anything that's come up that was Broadway-bound.

MARTIN: August Wilson's plays offered tremendous opportunities for African-American actors to show what they could do. And of course we recently, you know, lost him within the last couple of years. And the last play that he wrote was staged on Broadway earlier this year. Do you fear that having lost this giant that these opportunities to show what you can do will no longer be available?

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, I don't think it would be fair to say that I fear it because I know that there are writers writing where the problem may be is in producers producing. You know, theater is an expensive venture these days. It's very difficult to put plays and musicals up these days because of the finances, but I certainly believe that we have writers whose material is important and will be seen.

MARTIN: I think if I have this right, you're first ongoing TV role was Reba on "Pee-wee's Playhouse." Is that right?

Ms. MERKERSON: It sure was. Me, and Larry Fishburne, and Jimmy Smits, there was a bunch of us there.

MARTIN: Isn't that amazing?

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Such great talents all on "Pee-wee's Playhouse."

(Soundbite of TV show "Pee-wee's Playhouse")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Come in and pull yourself up a chair.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) A cherry.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Let the fun begin it's time to let down your hair. Pee-wee's sure it's time, so stand up you're invited to the wacky Pee-wee playhouse.

Ms. MERKERSON: And I love it because I went to see "Thurgood" about that I guess a week or so ago…

MARTIN: Laurence Fishburne being the star and does the play "Thurgood" about Thurgood Marshall.

Ms. MERKERSON: I went backstage and I said, you know, Fish, what I love is that you continually put our stint on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" in your bio in the playbill. You know, it's important because for me it was my first television gig, you know?

MARTIN: How did you get that role and do you still run into Reba fans?

Ms. MERKERSON: Oh absolutely. It's amazing how many people - I mean because now they're on DVD which is really fabulous, but it was one of those wild things where I went to audition. And I thought I was funny and the person I auditioned for didn't, and so I had blown the job and I guess weeks later they got new casting people. And I didn't know who Pee-wee Herman was, so if, you know, for fans of the show, if they watch like the first episode that I ever did, I think it was a big party and he just kept making me laugh because I had never seen the character before. And the director was angry and he was like how can we get through this scene? And I said I have to look at the plate. So the entire plate he's serving hors d'oeuvre, I'm looking at the plate, and we're still good buddies. He still, to this day, knows how to make me laugh like no one else. Paul Reubens.

MARTIN: That's great. That's great. And of course that wasn't your last TV job by any means, but I didn't realize until I was preparing to speak to you that you were the longest running cast member on "Law and Order." I mean I can't ever remember you not being there.

Ms. MERKERSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: But that's saying something because, you know, every year we have these conversations about representation on the small screen, the big screen, and Lieutenant Van Buren's been hanging in there this whole time.

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, you know, it's especially interesting for me because I can remember as a young girl, I grew up in the fifties and sixties, there weren't very many role models for me on television, and that I am the longest running African-American is really quite an extraordinary feat. And that it has been a consistent character that people are proud of, a character that has lots of integrity, has been a thing of pride for me, and being on "Law and Order," we've been given our 19th season and in the 20th season we will be right on the same history path as "Gunsmoke." And the 21st year we will have surpassed "Gunsmoke," so I think it's extraordinary that my character has been on the show consistently, and I am reminded of how important it is when I walk the street and people approach me.

MARTIN: What do they say? What kinds of things do they say?

Ms. MERKERSON: I guess the greatest compliment is when I see police officers on the street and they yell out hey, Lieu, we went to come to your precinct, I guess.

MARTIN: Which is interesting because the relationship of minorities, particularly to the NYPD has been very troubled over the years. It still is. It's very complicated.

Ms. MERKERSON: Let me tell you. I grew up in the 60s, and I grew up in Detroit and the city was like so many during that time in upheaval. And so my attitude about law enforcement as a young person was not that great, and then I started doing the show and I started meeting the men and women who work in law enforcement and was amazed at the people that I met. And it is like any other job in the world, I believe, that there are some bad apples in the bushel, but by and large I believe that there are tremendous people that work in law enforcement. And it's not fair to criticize an entire group for the doings of a few.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with actress S. Epatha Merkerson about her career and Tony nomination. I don't know if anybody said this to you, but one of the things that I think people appreciate about the character you play on the program is that she is not immune from the realities that other people of color experience in her life and that that is depicted on the program. I want to play a short clip where your character is talking to a friend whose daughter was murdered and she's trying to get her to cooperate in the investigation. Let's play it.

(Soundbite of TV show "Law and Order")

Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lt. Anita Van Buren) Christine, has he made threats against Cali, too?

Ms. ANNIE CORLEY: (As Christine) I can't do this.

Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lt. Anita Van Buren) Did he call here?

Ms. CORLEY: (As Christine) Anita, I can't lose another child!

Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lt. Anita Van Buren) And you won't if you'll let me put this man away, but girl you got to come clean.

Ms. CORLEY: (As Christine)Why are you all over me?

Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lt. Anita Van Buren) You remember when I was a rookie, and I wanted to quit because of all the crap I was taking on the job? Well, you said to me don't let them beat you, and the reason I hung in was because you wouldn't let me give up and I'm not going to let you give up now.

MARTIN: Wow.

Ms. MERKERSON: "Acid." That was an episode called "Acid," and which was actually directed by Michael Pressman who directed "Come Back, Little Sheba," but your question, I'm sorry.

MARTIN: No. I'm interested to hear. One of the things I was curious about was where you draw upon to experience that because I think, forgive me, but you're very successful in your profession. And I think a lot of people feel that once you get to a place like that, you don't have to experience these things anymore and I just wondered what it is…

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, that's not true.

MARTIN: Well, I just wondered what it is you tap into to express these things?

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, you know, one of the wonderful things about "Law and Order" is that we have script meetings and we sit down with the director of that particular episode, the producers, the writer, and we read and we discuss the show. And, you know, sometimes the writers don't particularly care for what we say, but we're given the opportunity to say it. You know, I'm a woman. I'm 55, and I'm an African-American. I sit in a very particular position. There's no one in that room that has lived that particular life, and so I have been able to speak and have my thoughts heard and presented in the character in the scripts. And more than anything I appreciate that opportunity, and I say this all the time, when we sit there in those script meetings we're pretty much a microcosm of the world. We're black and white. We're male and female. We're Jew and gentile, we're young and old, and we have an opportunity, and I think it's shown in our scripts, to learn from each other and to produce a show that provokes thought, makes people angry, and, you know, really is viable and for me it's the best of television. Not only does it entertain, but it educates.

MARTIN: What would you recommend to perhaps young people listening to this who wonder how they can attain that kind of influence. Because I think a lot of people, particularly in creative professions where work is not assured, wonder if they should speak up if something isn't true to them if they feel it doesn't really represent the truth of the experience. They feel like maybe they've conditioned to just keep their mouths shut and move on or have to leave. Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about how they can speak their truth if they don't…

Ms. MERKERSON: I can only tell you what I have done. You know, I am my mother's child and so my mother always said to me, you know, what's most important is that you educate yourself and so when you do speak your mind, you're speaking it from a base of knowledge. I think it's most important that any young person who comes to specifically this profession, they have to come to it with a point of view of what it is you want to do in this business, how you want to do it.

MARTIN: You - of course I cannot help, but mention the Emmy that you won for your performance in a television film "Lackawanna Blues" in 2006. I don't know what you loved about that role, but what I loved about it is that you got to show such a wide range of feelings and emotions, and I wonder do you feel, and this is a perpetual discussion that, you know, we have often with actors of color, do you feel you've had a chance to show the world everything you can do?

Ms. MERKERSON: I think the great thing about living is that you keep learning and so I learned a lot from doing Lackawanna. It was indeed the first time I was ever cast to actually carry a film, so there was a learning experience in that for me, and when I shot Lackawanna I was 52, you know what I'm saying? I'd been doing this a long time so even with Sheba I think that I learned something about myself as a performer then, so I don't think I've even seen all that I can do.

I think that we must continue to explore whenever we can, and yes there are not that many roles for women of my age, but then, you know, when you are race specific then it becomes even smaller and smaller for Asian women, you know, for Latino women. For any women over the age of 40, the roles do get, you know, smaller and smaller, but I think that it's important that, you know, we continue to look and strive, and now I'm trying to see if I can even get to the other side of the camera and produce. I think, you know, as long as I'm growing as an individual and as an artist, then I will continue to be a productive person.

MARTIN: S. Epatha Merkerson, she's up for a Tony award for her role in "Come Back, Little Sheba." She was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Thank you and good luck to you.

Ms. MERKERSON: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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