Wintry winds were whipping around the Upper West Side one frigid Friday night recently, but S. Epatha Merkerson wasn't feeling a thing in her toasty trailer at Columbus and 92nd. She — that is, her hard-nosed, no-nonsense character Lt. Anita Van Buren — has risen so high in "Law & Order" ranks she rarely ventures into the real world of nitty-gritty fieldwork. She confines herself to the comfort-controlled conditions of interior shooting.
"It is a huge deal for Van Buren to show up," explains Merkerson. "Two kids have been killed, and her presence at the investigation scene underlines the gravity of the situation. I saw a crane so there'll be a lot of whistles-and-bells tonight. It looks like a long night."
"Law & Order" is bread & butter for a veritable multitude of New York stage actors, and sitting at the head of the table is Merkerson, who begins her 15th season with the series this month. That's longer than anyone else in the cast — "Sam [Waterston] started the season after I did," she helpfully injects from the "Order" side of the ledger — and, even more astonishing, hers is the longest run of any African American on primetime TV.
But she still counts herself a stage actress who makes a living in television, happily returning to the arms of her first love whenever a hiatus allows. Of late, Off-Broadway and regional theatre have been her twin focuses (Cheryl West's Birdie Blue at Second Stage in '05 was her most recent NY gig — and that got her an Obie, as did I'm Not Stupid in 1992). But it was her first Broadway show that brought her this small-screen high profile, and it is television that is bringing her back to Broadway for seconds — 18 years later. On Jan. 24 she will open (after previews) at the Biltmore Theatre with Kevin Anderson and Zoe Kazan in William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba, playing the fat and frumpy hausfrau of a recovering alcoholic. It is time for a Main Stem reprise: Merkerson was one month and five days old when Shirley Booth's Oscar-winning re-creation of her Tony-winning performance opened in New York at the Victoria Theatre, and since those seem to be the only two awards Merkerson doesn't have, she was interested.
"Hell, yes!" she responded in 12-point type when director Michael Pressman pitched her the part officially. "One day when he was directing a 'Law & Order,' I was telling him that I like to do theatre whenever the series lets me, and he told me he had just done a reading of Little Sheba and was pleased how it had held up. He said he'd get back to me."
What he lined up was a summer run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles — and the resulting critical raves raised the eyebrows of Manhattan Theatre Club's Mandy Greenfield, who went West to see the show and then slipped the star and director a thumbs-up.
"I never read reviews," Merkerson claims, "but people said they were okay." [Okay? "All thoughts of Booth fall by the wayside," as the Los Angeles Times put it, is okay?]
The Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba is a far cry from the one who gets whatever she wants, although she wants her Doc and has gotten him, much like Ahab lashed to Moby Dick. "This is someone I never played before," Merkerson admits. "I'm always getting these strong women to play, and although Lola finally gets there, she's not one of them."
By Merkerson math, this will be her second time on Broadway, although there are nitpickers who insist the night she went on for Lynne Thigpen in Tintypes was really her Broadway debut. As far as she is concerned, she debuted on Broadway with a Tony-nominated performance in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson.
"Certainly, that was the play that started it all for me," she says. "A producer on 'Law & Order' was a theatre nut, and when a spot opened up, he called me." The series was already four years old when she came aboard — to replace Dann Florek's Captain Cragen.
There is a life, and in particular there are awards, beyond the 300-plus episodes she has done of "Law & Order." Ruben Santiago-Hudson's Obie-winning one-man show, Lackawanna Blues, which he and director George Wolfe converted into a sprawling cavalcade of an HBO TV-movie, had her as its indomitable matriarch bedrock. That performance won her a slew of trophies — to name names: the Gracie Allen Award, the Emmy, the Golden Globe, the NAACP Image Award, the Screen Actors Guild Award, the Black Reel Award and the PRISM Award, but, as noted, no Tony and no Oscar. Who knows? Maybe Come Back, Little Sheba will remedy that, as it did for Shirley Booth.
Now about her "S." One is obliged to ask. "It's not a mystery anymore," she confesses. "It's all over the internet, in fact. A knucklehead I went to high school with blabbed. My name is S _ _ _ _ _ . But don't call me that. The name I have gone by all my life is Epatha."
Not to worry, Epatha. After Come Back, Little Sheba, they'll know what the S. is for.