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Merkerson, S. Epatha

S. Epatha Merkerson

1952

Actor

S. Epatha Merkerson has made a name for herself playing Lt. Anita Van Buren on the long-running, Emmy award-winning police drama, Law & Order. For more than a decade, fans have tuned in to watch the show's ensemble cast portray gritty, often straight-from-the-headlines, New York crime stories. Merkerson is also an accomplished stage and screen actor, having performed on and off Broadway, in film, and on television. Her talents have earned her attention from the industry's most prestigious award granting organizations.

S. Epatha Merkerson was born on November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, Michigan, and raised by her mother, a divorced postal employee, in Detroit, Michigan, along with four siblings. At the age of 13 Merkerson's family moved to an all-white neighborhood and experienced racism that she remembers well. During the 1960s, Detroit erupted in racial riots that made relations between blacks and whites living there uneasy. "Each day my brother Zephry and I would guess how many new For Sale signs had gone up," she told People Weekly magazine. In Detroit, Merkerson also had a scary run-in with the police. While driving with her brother in 1967, Merkerson had a police officer point his gun at the back of her head while his partner inspected her brother's identification. The police were looking for a suspect driving a similar car. Although she and her brother were released, Merkerson remembered the encounter to People Weekly as "terrifying."

Merkerson did well in school and continued her education at Wayne State University in Detroit. While earning a bachelor of fine arts degree from the university, Merkerson experienced racial discrimination. As "the only black person" in Wayne State's drama program at the time, "I was actually told not to audition for things," she told People Weekly.

Upon graduation in 1975, Merkerson left Detroit for Albany, New York, to pursue her acting career. She soon joined a children's theater company. At the same time she met Toussaint L. Jones Jr. whom she would date for many years. The couple married in March of 1994.

In 1986 with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work Merkerson entertained millions of children and adults as Reba the Mail Lady on the popular Pee-wee's Playhouse television show. As a spin-off of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, actor Paul Reuben's first feature film combined old educational film segments, puppets, marionettes, and human characters with fun and games, and an irreverent take on societal conventions. Racial, social, and sexual conventions were challenged, always in good humor. On one show Pee-wee marries a bowl of cereal; on another, a white female character goes on a date with an African-American cowboy. The cast used a hilarious mix of camp, surprise, and silliness to win six Emmy Awards during its first season. The show developed a cult following and soon became part of popular culture, spawning a second movie and Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special in 1988. Dolls, toys, and Pee-wee's Playhouse themed paraphernalia found a brisk market until the craze came to an end when Reubens was arrested for indecent behavior in August 1991.

Merkerson's role on Pee-wee's Playhouse caught the attention of Dick Wolf, the executive producer of Law & Order. In 1993 Dick Wolf, the show's executive producer, was urged to "add a woman to the regular cast or the show would be cancelled," Merkerson said during an interview with National Public Radio. But Wolf admitted to People Weekly that he "fell in love with her" for her role on Pee-wee's Playhouse and cast her on Law & Order without an audition. Merkerson had landed a part on what would become the longest-running crime series and the second longest-running drama series in the history of television. On Law & Order, Merkerson plays Lt. Anita Van Buren, a tough, no-nonsense type who can hold her own against the male-dominated police department. Van Buren is also the mother of a child killed because of a gunman's inability to read. A series regular, she dispenses wisdom and supervision to New York City detectives. The cast earned an Emmy in 1997 and holds the record for the most consecutive Emmy nominations (11) for Outstanding Drama Series. Law & Order has spawned successful spin-offsLaw & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. A third show, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, premieres in 2005.

Despite her career success, Merkerson still finds she has to struggle at times to bring some rather obscure African-American realities to her roles. Merkerson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "I came into this business with no illusions, especially about television. It's very stereotyped." Citing a particular Law & Order episode involving a black man passing for white unbeknownst to his white wife, Merkerson felt the child playing their offspring in reality wouldn't have been dark-skinned. She lobbied vigorously for a more fair-skinned child but for the episode but was overruled. "We try to do shows that are correct," she explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Not politically correct, not artistically correct, but correct in reality. It's the minutiae, those little things that present themselves in our culture that I've spent my career fighting for."

In addition to her television work, Merkerson has performed in a long list of theater productions and films. For her work in theater she earned an Obie Award in 1991 for I'm not Stupid and a Helen Hayes Award in 1999 for her work in The Old Settler. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson earned her both a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for Best Actress. She also appeared in such films as Prizzi's Honor, Postcards from the Edge, Jacob's Ladder, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, An Unexpected Life, and Radio. Merkerson is scheduled to complete production on the movie Lackawanna Blues in 2004, co-starring Jimmy Smits and Rosie Perez.

But acting is not Merkerson's only activity. Having lost one of her close friends to lung cancer, Merkerson decided in 1994 to quit smoking herself. She told the Los Angeles Daily News, "I woke up one morning and it just felt like an elephant was standing on my chest." A year later she lost another friend to the disease. Merkerson dedicates time to lung cancer prevention, working with kids to spread awareness about the dangers of smoking. She told the Los Angeles Daily News, "One thing I've realized is celebrity can be used for real important things. People seem to listen a little more acutely to those who are in front of the camera. If you're going to hear it from me because I'm Lt. Van Buren, then that's really cool." She is an active participant with the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids and organizations such as Cancercare have honored Merkerson for her work.

At a Glance

Born Sharon Epatha Merkerson on November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, MI; married Toussaint L. Jones, 1994. Education: Wayne State University, BA, fine arts, 1975.

Career: Actor, 1975.

Awards: Obie Award, 1991, for I'm not Stupid ; Helen Hayes Award, for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Play, 1999, for The Old Settler.

Addresses: Agent David Nesmith, PMK/HBH Public Relations, 650 5th Avenue, 33rd Floor, New York, NY 10019.

Selected works

Films

Prizzi's Honor, 1985.

Navy Seals, 1990.

Jacob's Ladder, 1990.

Terminator II, 1991.

Radio, 2003.

Jersey Girl, 2004.

Lackawanna Blues, 2004.

Plays

The Piano Lesson, 1990.

I'm Not Stupid, 1991.

The Old Settler, 1998.

F**king A, 2003.

Television

The Cosby Show, 1984.

Pee-wee's Playhouse, 1986.

Elysian Fields, 1989.

Equal Justice, 1990.

Here and Now, 1992.

Mann and Machine, 1992.

Law & Order, 1993.

A Place for Annie, 1994.

A Mother's Prayer, 1995.

Breaking Through, 1996.

An Unexpected Life, 1998.

It's a Girl Thing, 2001.

Sources

Periodicals

Daily News (Los Angeles), November 12, 2001, p. L7.

Essence, September 2003, p. 122.

Hollywood Reporter, October 21, 2002, p. 11.

People Weekly, August 13, 2001, p. 93.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 10, 1998, p. E8.

On-line

"S. Epatha Merkerson," NBC, www.nbc.com (July 23, 2004).

"Pee-Wee's Playhouse," Nostalgia Central, www.nostalgiacentral.com/tv/kids/pee.htm (July 24, 2004).

"Audio Interview with S. Epatha Merkerson," National Public Radio, www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1069210 (July 25, 2004).

Sharon Melson Fletcher

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Merkerson, S. Epatha 1952–

MERKERSON, S. Epatha 1952–

(Epatha Merkerson, Epatha Merkinson)

PERSONAL

Full name, Sharon Epatha Merkerson; born November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, MI; daughter of Ann Merkerson (a postal worker); married Toussaint L. Jones (a social worker and therapist), March 1994. Education: Wayne State University, B.F.A., theatre, 1975.

Addresses: Manager—Blueprint Artist Management, 5670 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2525, Los Angeles, CA 90036, or 1438 N. Gower St., Building 15, 2nd Floor, Box 17, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Publicist—PMK/HBH Public Relations, 650 5th Ave., 33rd Floor, New York, NY 10019.

Career: Actress. Worked in children's theater in Albany, NY; Arena Stage, Washington, DC, guest artist, 1983. Campaign for Tobacco–Free Kids, spokesperson. Sometimes credited as Epatha Merkerson.

Awards, Honors: Antoinette Perry Award nomination, best actress, Drama Desk Award nomination, and L.A. Theatre Critics Award nomination, 1990, all for The Piano Lesson; Helen Hayes Award nomination, 1990; Obie Award, 1992, for I'm Not Stupid; Helen Hayes Award, 1998, for The Old Settler; Image Award nominations, outstanding lead actress in a drama series, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2001, Screen Actors Guild Award nominations (with others), outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2004, all for Law & Order; Lucille Lortel Award nomination, outstanding lead actress, 2003, for Fucking A.

CREDITS

Television Appearances; Series:

Reba the mail lady, Pee–Wee's Playhouse, CBS, 1986.

Captain Margaret Claghorn, Mann & Machine, NBC, 1992.

Ms. St. Marth, Here and Now, NBC, 1992–1993.

Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, Law & Order, NBC, 1993—.

Television Appearances; Miniseries:

Lani, coworker, "I'm OK, It's You I'm Not Sure About," A Girl Thing, Showtime, 2001.

Television Appearances; Movies:

Equal Justice, 1990.

Louise Waters, It's Nothing Personal (also known as Nothing Personal), NBC, 1993.

Alice, "A Place for Annie," Hallmark Hall of Fame, ABC, 1994.

Ruby, A Mother's Prayer, USA Network, 1995.

Barbara Caffrey, Breaking Through (also known as After the Silence), 1996.

Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, Exiled (also known as Exiled: A Law & Order Movie), NBC, 1998.

Beverly Hawkins, An Unexpected Life, USA Network, 1998.

Nanny, Lackawanna Blues, HBO, 2004.

Television Appearances; Pilots:

Jimmy, Elysian Fields (also known as The CBS Summer Playhouse), CBS, 1989.

Melba, Moe's mother, Moe's World, ABC, 1992.

Television Appearances; Specials:

Reba the mail lady, A Special Evening of Pee–Wee's Playhouse, CBS, 1987.

Reba the mail lady, Pee–Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (also known as Christmas Special, Christmas at Pee Wee's Playhouse, and Pee–Wee Herman's Christmas Special), CBS, 1988.

Ruth Clayton, "Summer Stories: The Mall," ABC Afterschool Specials, ABC, 1992.

Voice of Eslanda Robeson, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand, PBS, 1999.

Host, Art in the Twenty–First Century (documentary), PBS, 2001.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

Book club member, "Bookworm," The Cosby Show, 1988.

Denise Winters, "Mushrooms," Law & Order, 1991.

Mama Bouchard, "I Witness," South Beach, 1993.

Herself, Larry King Live, CNN, 2000.

Dr. McCaskill, "Dark Side of the Moon," Frasier, NBC, 2000.

Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, "Badge," Law & Order: Criminal Intent, NBC, 2002.

TV Land Moguls, TV Land, 2004.

Film Appearances:

All That Jazz, Twentieth Century–Fox, 1979.

Prizzi's Honor, ABC Motion Pictures, 1985.

(As Epatha Merkinson) Dr. Jamison, She's Gotta Have It, 1986.

Postcards from the Edge, Columbia, 1990.

Elsa, Jacob's Ladder (also known as Dante's Inferno), TriStar, 1990.

Rachel, Loose Cannons, TriStar, 1990.

Jolena, Navy SEALS, Orion, 1990.

Tarissa Dyson, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (also known as T2, El Exterminator 2, T2—Terminator 2: Judgment Day, T2: Extreme Edition, T2: Ultimate Edition, and Terminator 2—Le jugement dernier), TriStar, 1991.

Nea, Random Hearts, Sony Pictures Releasing, 1999.

Lessie Watson, The Rising Place, 2001.

Maggie, Radio, Sony Pictures Releasing, 2003.

Doctor #1, Jersey Girl, Miramax, 2004.

Stage Appearances:

Second Thoughts, Black Theatre Festival U.S.A., Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, New York City, 1979.

Understudy for female roles, Spell #7, Public Theatre, New York City, 1979.

Understudy, Tintypes, Theatre of St. Peter's Church, New York City, 1980, then John Golden Theatre, New York City, 1980–1981.

Pianist, Jazz Set, Henry Street Settlement's New Federal Theatre, New York City, 1982.

Woman #2, Home, Alley Theatre, Houston, TX, 1982.

Incandescent Tones, New Federal Theatre, 1983.

Understudy, Puppetplay, Theatre Four, New York City, 1983–1984.

Louise Cline, The Harvesting, Circle Repertory Theatre, New York City, 1984.

Rula, Every Goodbye Ain't Gone, Colonnades Theatre Lab, New York City, 1984.

Jenny, Hospice, Colonnades Theatre Lab, 1984.

Understudy, Balm in Gilead, Minetta Lane Theatre, New York City, 1984–1985.

Shepard Sets, Syracuse Stage, Syracuse, NY, 1985.

The Dream Team, Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT, 1985.

A Raisin in the Sun, Philadelphia Drama Guild, Philadelphia, PA, 1985.

Home, The Whole Theatre, Montclair, NJ, 1985–1986.

Billie Holiday, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, Westside Arts Theatre, New York City, 1987.

Adele, Moms, Hudson Guild Theatre, New York City, 1987.

Dawn, Three Ways Home, McCarter Theatre, Princeton, NJ, and Astor Place Theatre, New York City, both 1988.

Bernice, The Piano Lesson, Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL, 1989, then Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City, 1990, later Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, 1990.

Janet, Secrets to Square Dancing, Playwrights Horizons, New York City, 1991.

Margaret Fletcher, I'm Not Stupid, Playwrights Horizon, 1991.

The Old Settler, Studio Theatre, Washington, DC, 1998.

Hester Smith, Fucking A, Joseph Papp Public Theatre/Anspacher Public Theatre, New York City, 2003.

RECORDINGS

Video Games:

Voice of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, Law & Order: Dead on the Money, 2002.

Voice of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, Law & Order II: Double or Nothing, 2003.

OTHER SOURCES

Periodicals:

Essence, March, 1996, p. 60; September, 2003, p. 122.

People Weekly, August 13, 2001, p. 93.

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Merkerson, S. Epatha

S. Epatha Merkerson

Actress

Born Sharon Epatha Merkerson, November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, MI; daughter of Ann (a postal worker); married Toussaint L. Jones Jr. (a social worker), March, 1994 (divorced). Education: Wayne State University, B.F.A., 1975.

Addresses: Agent—David Nesmith, PMK/HBH Public Relations, 650 5th Avenue, 33rd Fl., New York, NY 10019.

Career

Member of a children's theater company in Albany, NY, c. 1975-78; moved to New York City and began appearing in Off-Broadway productions. Actress in films, including: She's Gotta Have It, 1986; Jacob's Ladder, 1990; Navy Seals, 1990; Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991; Random Hearts, 1999; The Rising Place, 2001; Radio, 2003; Jersey Girl, 2004; Black Snake Moan, 2006. Television appearances include: Peewee's Playhouse, CBS, 1986-91; Elysian Fields(movie), 1989; Equal Justice(movie), 1990; Mann … Machine, NBC, 1992; It's Nothing Personal(movie), 1993; Law … Order, NBC, 1993—; A Place for Annie(movie), 1994; A Mother's Prayer(movie), 1995; Breaking Through(movie), 1996; An Unexpected Life(movie), 1998; A Girl Thing(miniseries), 2001; Lackawanna Blues(movie), 2005. Stage appearances include: The Piano Lesson, Walter Kerr Theatre, 1990-91; The Old Settler, Studio Theatre, Washington, D.C., 1999; Birdie Blue, Second Stage Theatre, New York City, 2005.

Awards: Obie Award for performance, Village Voice, for I'm Not Stupid, 1991-92; Helen Hayes Award for outstanding lead actress (resident play), Washington Theatre Awards Society, for The Old Settler, 1999; Emmy Award for outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or a movie, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for Lackawanna Blues, 2005; Obie Award for performance, Village Voice, for Birdie Blue, Second Stage Theatre, 2005; Golden Globe award for best performance by an actress in a mini-series or a motion picture made for television, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, for Lackawanna Blues, 2006; Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding performance by a female actor in a television movie or miniseries, for Lackawanna Blues, 2006.

Sidelights

S. Epatha Merkerson is known to millions of television viewers as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on the hit NBC series Law … Order.Merkerson has been a staple of the show since 1993, three years after its launch, and more than a dozen years later her name became the answer to a trivia question: she is the longest-serving African-American actor on a prime-time drama series. In 2005, she won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe award for her work in the well-received HBO film, Lackawanna Blues.

Merkerson avoids divulging what the initial "S" stands for, but some sources note that her given name is Sharon; the name she uses professionally is pronounced "ee-PAY-thuh." She was born on November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, Michigan, but grew up in Detroit as one of five children raised by her divorced mother, Ann, a postal worker. At a time when the racial demographics of the city were rapidly shifting, the Merkersons moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in Detroit. Their address was the first black-owned house on the street, which prompted a flurry of "For Sale" signs, she recalled, and tensions flared elsewhere in the city into race riots that lasted for days the summer when she was 14. The city's police force was largely white, and Merkerson experienced firsthand how harrowing a routine traffic stop could become. "My older brother, Zephry, and I were out driving, and the police were looking for someone driving a car like his, " she recalled in an interview with Galina Espinoza for People."One of them pointed a gun at the back of my head."

Merkerson's home life provided her with the impetus to succeed in life. "When I was a kid going to high school, it was ninety percent white, " she told Black Issues Book Review writer Sharon D. Johnson. "I remember sitting at the kitchen table and [my mother] telling me, 'Don't you let a soul in this school tell you that you can't do anything that you want to do. No one can take your education from you. If they say you can't do it, prove them to be the liar.'" Further inspiration to excel came from the cultural events she regularly attended with her family, most memorably the dancer Judith Jamison performing with Alvin Ailey's acclaimed dance company. Jamison's stage presence moved Merkerson so deeply that she decided to major in dance when she entered college.

At Wayne State University in her hometown, Merkerson eventually switched over to the drama department. She found herself the sole African-American student in the program, and though she asserted she received a solid training for the stage, "because I was the only black student in the department, I didn't work on the main stage, " she said in an interview with Simi Horwitz for Back Stage."I worked in master classes, the studio theatre, and at recitals, but never the main stage. I learned racial typecasting in college. But as a result, I was prepared when I came to New York, knowing I would be typecast as an African American and generally not expecting much."

Merkerson did not immediately head for Manhattan once she earned her Wayne State degree in 1975, but instead took a job in Albany, New York, with a children's theater company. She arrived in New York City in 1978, and worked in Off-Broadway productions for a number of years. Her first screen credit came when a young filmmaker, Spike Lee, cast her in his breakthrough 1986 film, She's Gotta Have It, as Doctor Jamison. Later that year she also found a regular gig as Reba the mail carrier on Paul Reubens' CBS children's series Pee-wee's Playhouse.The show, which had nearly as many adult fans as younger ones, won three Daytime Emmy Awards for its first season. Both Natasha Lyonne ( American Pie) and Laurence Fishburne ( The Matrix) were fellow cast members on the series.

Pee-wee's Playhouse ran until 1991, and the job helped Merkerson secure steady work in film and television over the course of its run. She appeared in the made-for-TV films Elysian Fields and Equal Justice, and in two feature films from 1990, Navy Seals and Jacob's Ladder.She also continued to take theater work, most notably in the original Broadway production of playwright August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Piano Lesson in 1990. Her portrayal of Berniece, a woman fighting to preserve her family's most prized possession, was nominated for a Tony Award. In 1991, she appeared in the Hollywood action thriller Terminator 2: Judgment Day as Tarissa Dyon.

In 1992, legendary television producer Dick Wolf hired Merkerson for his new cop series, Mann … Machine, and though the show was cancelled after its first season, Wolf called her a year later when network executives strongly suggested that he needed to diversify the cast of Law … Order.The gritty, well-written police procedural was set in New York City and had lured a large viewership since its inception in 1990. Wolf cast Merkerson in the part of the humorless Lieutenant Anita Van Buren without even asking her to audition, so convinced was he that she was ideal for the part.

Merkerson occasionally provided input on certain plotlines in rehearsals for Law … Order episodes. For example, she objected to a premise in which a black man, passing for white, has a baby with his wife, who is white, and the infant is born much darker than either parent. This was genetically impossible, and a few African-American viewers were irate. "We try to do shows that are correct, " Merkerson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a few seasons into her run, after recounting that episode's controversy and the letters she received from viewers. "Not politically correct, not artistically correct, but correct in reality. It's the minutiae, those little things that present themselves in our culture that I've spent my career fighting for."

Law … Order's shooting schedule allowed Merkerson to remain active in film and theater. In 1999, she won the Helen Hayes Award for her lead role in The Old Settler, a play about Harlem in the 1940s staged at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. She also appeared in the 1999 Harrison Ford thriller Random Hearts, the Cuba Gooding Jr. feel-good sports tale Radio, and the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy Jersey Girl in 2004, and in several more made-for-television movies. Despite her lengthy resume, she was most often recognized as Lieutenant Van Buren. Real-life New York City cops, in particular, were among her most ardent fans, and as she told Horwitz in the Back Stage interview, they often call out "Loo, " short for lieutenant, to her. "Not too long ago, several cops who saw me go into a store waited for me to come out, " she also recounted to Horwitz. "They had just arrested some guys and put them in the police van, but the cops weren't going anywhere. They wanted the chance to say hello to me."

Veteran Broadway director George C. Wolfe ( Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, ) cast Merkerson in a highly coveted lead role for his 2005 HBO Films project, Lackawanna Blues.Based on a one-person play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the movie was set in an all-black suburb of Buffalo, New York, during the 1950s, and featured a stellar cast, including Jimmy Smits, Macy Gray, Jeffrey Wright, Mos Def, and Rosie Perez. Merkerson played Rachel "Nanny" Crosby, the woman who became a parental figure for young Santiago-Hudson as the proprietor of a boardinghouse. "It's not just about a young boy and the woman who raised him, " Merkerson explained in an interview with Les Spindle for Back Stage East."It's also about a period of time when this could happen. All of these people would be in this home because of what was going on in the larger world. It shows what people had to do to make it through their lives at that time and how they needed to support each other."

The pre-civil rights black community depicted in Lackawanna Blues was not unlike the world Merkerson knew in her earliest years in Detroit. "All elements were in the neighborhood, but there were checks and balances, " she recalled when discussing the Lackawanna milieu with Chicago Tribune writer Michael Kilian. "You know, 'That's Dr. Jones' house. You don't make a lot of noise there."

Merkerson collected an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie as well as a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award for Lackawanna Blues.When she accepted the last award, she mentioned her divorce lawyer in the speech. She had married a social worker in 1994, and commuted to and from New York City from the Maryland home they shared for a number of years, but the marriage ended. As she told Entertainment Weekly writer Alynda Wheat, her professional success provided some solace after a tough year. "That was another reason [the award] was so exciting, " she admitted. "It was happening at a time when someone was trying to take my spirit."

Merkerson still appears on stage, and won her second Obie Award from the Village Voice for her turn in Birdie Blue, which ran at the Second Stage Theatre in the summer of 2005. She also makes time to work with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an anti-smoking organization. She gave up the habit herself after losing two friends to lung cancer. In 2006, she was slated to appear in Black Snake Moan, an interracial drama starring Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Timberlake. She also began her fourteenth season on Law … Order, which was edging toward a record as the longest running drama series on television. Among its lengthy roster of cast members over the years, she was now the veteran. Despite her longevity in the role, Merkerson claims she never tires of the job. "The thing about Lt. Van Buren is that there are certain things she's going to do and you'll be guaranteed them every week, " she told Kilian in the Chicago Tribune."That's why people like [her]. What makes it fresh for me is that we have these new stories every week. It would be different if it were a serial."

Merkerson's real ambition, however, was to produce. When the interview in Black Issues Book Review appeared in early 2006, she had recently acquired the rights to a 2004 novel by Diane McKinney-Whetstone, Leaving Cecil Street, that had won several literary accolades. Merkerson was moved by the stories, which were set in a Philadelphia neighborhood in the 1960s that reminded her of her own Motown upbringing. She viewed her investment in the project as a way to bring more stories about African-American life to the screen. "We never, ever are lacking talent in front of the camera, " she told Johnson for the journal. "What we are lacking are the people behind the scenes who are the decision makers. That's why I want to produce."

Sources

Back Stage, July 7, 2005, p. 7.

Back Stage East, December 15, 2005, p. 46A.

Black Issues Book Review, March/April 2006, p. 12.

Boston Herald, November 27, 2005, p. 57.

Chicago Tribune, February 11, 2005.

Entertainment Weekly, March 10, 2006, p. 32.

Jet, February 14, 2005, p. 52.

People, August 13, 2001, p. 93.

Record(Bergen Co., NJ), February 6, 2006, p. E1.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 10, 1998, p. E8.

Time, January 30, 1989, p. 69.

Variety, June 27, 2005, p. 72.

CarolBrennan

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