First off, it’s pronounced “ee-PAY-thuh.” S. Epatha Merkerson’s name may be unusual, but it’s familiar to “Law & Order” fans. She’s played Lt. Anita Van Buren on the juggernaut series for 14 seasons.
A Michigan native and graduate of Wayne State University, Merkerson debuted on TV as Reba the mail lady in 1987 on the quirky children’s show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” She’s popped up in films (including “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Terminator 2”), but it was her first starring role, in the 2005 TV movie “Lackawanna Blues,” that blew away critics and earned her Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards. She was also nominated for Tony and Drama Desk awards for her work in August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play, “The Piano Lesson.”
Recently divorced, Merkerson lives in Harlem and is starring in the Broadway revival of “Come Back, Little Sheba.” The limited run ends March 16—just in time to resume shooting “L&O.” Joseph V. Amodio sat down with her at the Biltmore Theatre.
Q. Rumor has it you’re a quilter.
A. My first quilt was for Zoe Jackson (actor Samuel Jackson’s daughter), as a gift, `cause I was broke. That’s how I started. Then, opening-night gifts, I’d use remnant fabric and make “valuable bags” with cast members’ names on them. When I was struggling, it was a way to give gifts that weren’t costly. I still make them.
Q. Did your mom sew?
A. She was quite a seamstress. She’d make all my brothers’ suits. I’d show her (a dress in) a magazine, and she’d make it. In the `60s, that with a pair of go-go boots—I was high fashion. (She laughs.) My mother raised five kids alone. I don’t know how she did it. After my parents separated, she went to school during the day and worked in the evenings sewing. She worked for the post office.
Q. She sounds impressive—raising five kids while putting herself through school.
A. She wanted to go to college. When she was 74, she went back and got a degree in sign language and helped start a ministry in her church, signing services. Education was important in our household.
Q. You’ve got quite a hefty role in “Sheba.” As Lola, you’re onstage almost every minute, costume changes and all. She’s haunted by her past, timid, shy—don’t you wanna scream by curtain call?
A. I’m usually typecast as strong, authoritative, so to find that kind of vulnerability is a real challenge. But Lola is not so far from me, either. I was married, and I understand how to be lonely in a marriage. I believe she’s in menopause. And that alone, hormonally, can send a woman into a tailspin. Add in her alcoholic husband, and (you’ve got) a decent person who’s just, um ... stuck. In the past. But she’s muuuch stronger than she thinks.
Q. She’s a far cry from Lt. Anita Van Buren. I understand you and Anita made TV history.
A. I’ve done over 300 episodes and am the longest-running African-American character on television. Male or female. I’m a trivia question.
Q. Van Buren doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Why do you think viewers so connect with her?
A. She’s trustworthy. She accepts responsibility for whatever happens in her precinct. And she’s a mother—you see her nurturing victims, detectives. You see a full woman who doesn’t suffer fools. People appreciate that. I like Van Buren. We probably wouldn’t hang out. Because ... I cuss a lot. And, you know, um ... I do things Van Buren would never do… .
A. (She laughs.) Yeah. I don’t think she has time for that. Also, she has children, and it never occurred to me to do that.
Q. It never occurred to you?
A. I never wanted children. That was a real bone of contention for years between my mother and me. But I knew from a young age I wasn’t going to be a parent.
Q. Is Epatha a family name? An African name?
A. From the New Testament. My dad said he had a teacher named Epatha who was influential in keeping him in school. But my mother said it was an old girlfriend of his. So that’s why she stuck in the Sharon EpathA. That’s what the “S” stands for. Everyone knows now because some numbskull I went to high school with decided to put it on the Internet.
Q. So you felt you were more an Epatha than a Sharon?
A. My family always called me EpathA. That’s all I ever knew, really. The last time anyone called me Sharon was in high school.
Q. So why keep the initial?
A. Y’know why ... when I was coming up, G. Gordon Liddy—I thought that was the coolest name. Now he was probably not the coolest person in our history, but there was something about it. I said, yeah, S. Epatha Merkerson. I like that. And I had it legally changed.
Q. Well, that makes sense—you and Liddy, you’re like two peas in a pod.
A. (She bursts out laughing.) Yeah, yeah, exactly. Literally, it was something that silly and stupid. People have such difficulty with my name. If I’d known, I probably would’ve added an “i,” spelled it “Epaitha.”
Q. So it’s a little bit of Bible, a little bit some old girlfriend and a little bit G. Gordon Liddy.
A. Yeah, yeah. And here I am.