S. Epatha Merkerson:
Most people know her as Lt. Anita Van Buren from television's Law and Order. Others may also know her as Reba the Mail Lady from the series Pee-wee's Playhouse. However, Washington theatergoers know S. Epatha Merkerson from the various stage roles she has performed in the D.C. area.
A native of Detroit, Ms. Merkerson earned her BFA degree at Wayne State University. She then made her way to New York and eventually settled in the Washington, D.C. Metro area. Ms. Merkerson now resides part-time in the D.C. area and part-time in New York.
Throughout her distinguished career, Ms. Merkerson has performed in feature film, television and stage productions, including Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, The Piano Lesson (which earned her a Tony nomination for Best Actress), and The Old Settler, for which she won The 1999 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Play.
For the second year, Ms. Merkerson will be acting as the Mistress of Ceremonies at the 2001 Helen Hayes Awards. With the ceremonies just around the corner, Ms. Merkerson took some time to speak with Talkin' Broadway about hosting the awards and about her impressive career.
Tracy Lyon: How did the opportunity to be the Mistress of Ceremonies come about?
S. Epatha Merkerson: Well, I did a show here about three years ago, and of course I had known of the Helen Hayes Awards from doing The Piano Lesson back in the early '90s. But when I did the show here, they asked me, would I be interested in presenting, and I [said], "Oh yeah, that would be great." So I presented the year I did the show. And then the following year they just asked if I would be willing to host it, which I thought was so cool. I think it really came from the fact that I had done some theater in the area and I live in the area.
TL: As a former recipient, how does it feel to be up there as the host?
SEM: It's a lot easier than sitting out there waiting for that envelope to open up! (laughs)
TL: (laughs) I am sure it is!
SEM: It's fun. This is my second year doing it, and it's just a great evening. And I have a lot of fun doing it.
TL: I understand you come to D.C. by way of Detroit and New York. How did you come to settle here?
SEM: Well, I married and at the time my husband was working for the D.C. Government. And it was just a lot easier for me to do the commuting than for him. And since I'm based in New York, I am the one that does the back and forth movement.
TL: Of course, we know that you have performed here in D.C. and also in New York. Do you find that there is a difference between performing here and in New York?
SEM: Well, not really. I think what I found here was theater as professional as any theater in New York. I think that is what's interesting and exciting, that although New York for a lot of actors is the ultimate place to go, there is viable and extraordinary theater in the regions. So, I think this Helen Hayes opportunity gives the community a chance to see this incredible theater. And from my coming here in the early '90s and doing a play till now, it has grown tremendously. So, certainly there is the difference between doing the Broadway show and the dreams of actors but in terms of good theater, you can find it here as well.
TL: As you mentioned, you previously won the Helen Hayes Award (for the portrayal of Elizabeth in The Old Settler). In regard to your portrayal of Elizabeth in The Old Settler, what attracted you to that role?
SEM: Just the simplicity of it and the characterizations of the two sisters. The time period. It's well written. All of those things. And I had the time. And it had been a while since I had been on stage, and an old friend of mine had been asked to direct it. So, it just seemed to be the right thing to do, and I had a great time doing it.
TL: Do you find that you have a preference between doing film work, television work or theater?
SEM: I love the theater. If I had the opportunity, I would be doing more of it. I think each medium has merit. You have different ways of working in each. Some are more profitable than others. But that's where I come from - I come from the theater. So, my heart will always be there first.
TL: Do you find that you connect in a different way with the characters you are portraying?
SEM: Between theater and television?
SEM: The thing about it is I'm in sort of an odd situation in that I am on a show that's lasted a long time. That's not always the case. So, I've had an opportunity to grow with Van Buren and to learn more and more about the character. You would also be able to do that in the theater in the rehearsal process [which] is much longer. And television - I'll get a script today, I'll start working on it on Tuesday, we'll rehearse it two or three times for camera blocking and so forth, go change my clothes, come back, and we put it on. And that's it. The theater, if you want to do something different, you have the opportunity in the next performance to make that change. So, the expediency of television to get things on the air, doesn't allow you to sort of luxuriate in specifics. You know, you have to look at everything overall, make decisions quickly, and then you're stuck with it. In theater you have the opportunity ... you make a decision one night and maybe change your mind the next as long as it's within the boundaries of what you're doing.
TL: You mentioned your character Lt. Van Buren from Law and Order and we know you from many other television and film roles. Do you find that you are drawn to a specific character trait when you're considering the roles that you are going to portray?
SEM: Not necessarily. I think it has more to do with how people see me. Especially when it comes to television and film. How people view me. Because some people don't think I have a sense of humor. (laughs) You know, because Van Buren is sort of a no-nonsense, straight-from-the-hip kind of woman, where I'm not that person. So, it works both ways. It's kind of blessing and curse, you know. And until I go in to meet people, and they see me, then they'll know what kind of person I am and what kind of actor I can be. But I think that we all are sometimes guilty of believing that a person is who we think they are from television.
TL: Do you have a favorite role?
SEM: Actually, I don't. There isn't a favorite role that I've done. There are some that I enjoyed the experience more than others. I had a great time on Old Settler,, I had a great time in The Piano Lesson, and there have been some small things I have done Off-Broadway and Off Off-Broadway that I have great memories from. There's no one character I look forward to playing. You know, I'm open. I enjoy working. So, whatever comes my way, I'll look at it, and if I find something interesting in it for me, then I tend to go for it.
TL: Throughout your career, which has been quite substantial, have you found that roles for African-American women have improved or do you think the industry still has a way to go?
SEM: Oh, I certainly think it has a way to go. Certainly, when you look at the fact that I have been on the air eight years, that says a lot. I think that there's also been a huge change in who's producing. African-American women are writing and producing. Kasi Lemmons has been doing great things - Caveman's Valentine, Eve's Bayou. There are women that are doing things that they weren't able to do before. Producing and writing their own things. So, absolutely, there's a change. But you know, there is always room for improvement.
TL: Have you ever had any ambitions to do any writing or producing?
SEM: I think I would probably like to produce. I am not interested in writing or directing. It's probably because I have control issues. (laughs) And the producer is in control of everything! (laughs) If I may be candid and honest here, I have control issues! (laughs) I think that is probably where my talent would lie.
TL: Finally, do you see yourself back on the D.C. stages anytime soon?
SEM: I hope so. I really do hope so. I'm sort of actively trying to find things that interest me. And once I come across something, I'll see where I can go. But, absolutely, I like the area, I like the theater people in the area, and I would like to do that again.
The Helen Hayes Awards will take place on Monday, May 7th. For more information, visit the Helen Hayes Awards website at www.helenhayes.org