Complex roles for African-American actresses can be hard to come by, even for gifted and renowned performers like S. Epatha Merkerson, who played the no-nonsense Lt. Anita Van Buren on television's "Law & Order" for 17 seasons, and Lillias White, who won a Tony for playing the world-weary hooker Sonja in the 1997 musical The Life. So both women were delighted when their mutual friend Billy Porter said he was writing a play and had a part in mind for each of them.
Porter won a 2013 Tony for portraying the drag queen Lola who teaches the conservative shoe factory workers in Kinky Boots how to be more accepting of people who are different. While I Yet Live, the play inspired by Porter's own experience as a gay youth growing up in a Pentecostal family, takes a serious look at what happens when people are abused, both emotionally and physically, for being outside the established norms.
There are five women in While I Yet Live, which opened Oct. 12 at Primary Stages, under the direction of Sheryl Kaller. Merkerson plays Maxine, the central character, based on Porter's mother. A deeply religious woman, Maxine is ashamed of her effeminate son and afraid to confront truths about her troubled husband. White, although just a year older than Merkerson, plays Maxine's mother Gertrude, the family matriarch who is harboring secrets of her own.
Porter and his mother have long since resolved their differences. In fact, when he started thinking about the play, he gave her a tape recorder and a list of questions to help her talk about their difficult past. "She did a full 90-minute tape for me," he says. "And a lot of it is in the play."'
Finding the right actors to put that story onstage was key, but Porter felt certain that Merkerson and White would be up to the job. He has been in plays with both women and, in addition to admiring their talent, he was fond of them personally. "They're my guardians away from home, my mamas, my sisters, my girlfriends," he says. "You know, I love my ladies."
Even though they've known one another for more than 30 years, the show marks the first time Merkerson and White have worked together. "I mean, I've done a few 'Law & Orders,'" says White, "but I never had a scene with her."
As they recall it, the first time they met, they got into a discussion about motherhood. White had just had a daughter, was breastfeeding, and about to go into an out-of-town production of Tintypes, the musical revue about America during the first two decades of the 20th century. Merkerson, who had understudied in the Broadway production, marveled at White's ability to juggle both a new baby and a new show.
"I have such admiration for women I know who are consummate performers and have children," says Merkerson. "I have trouble just focusing on the fact that I have a career and for them to be able to do both, I have a lot of admiration. I knew it was something I couldn't do."
Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Merkerson studied acting at Wayne State University and then moved to New York to pursue her dream of a stage career. White, who grew up in Brooklyn, got her degree in theatre from the City College of New York and plunged into the scene as well. Both took advantage of the showcase productions that were then abundant. "You could just go from show to show to show," Merkerson recalls.
They particularly relished the chances to work alongside — and learn from — older black actresses like Minnie Gentry, Frances Foster, Cynthia Belgrave and Mary Alice, who had starred in plays produced by the Negro Ensemble Company and made the most of the smaller parts they were given in mainstream plays and movies. "Cynthia Belgrave taught me so much about acting and about being in this business and about not having to say yes to everything," says White. Echoes Merkerson, "I have a degree in theatre but my real master's degree came when I moved to New York and worked with them."
Merkerson got her first big break when she was cast as Reba The Mailwoman on "Pee-wee's Playhouse." A few years later, she picked up a Tony nomination for her role as Berniece in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson.
During her subsequent long run on "Law & Order," the longest ever for a black character on prime-time, she squeezed in an Emmy-winning performance as the earthy boarding house owner in the 2005 television movie "Lackawanna Blues" and a Tony-nominated portrayal of Lola in the 2008 revival of Come Back, Little Sheba that featured an interracial couple.
Although she, too, did occasional television and movie parts, White focused primarily on the theatre. She understudied the part of Effie in the original production of Dreamgirls and then took over the role in the 1987 revival.
She also became the first African-American woman to play the role of Grizabella in Cats. Roles in Once on This Island, the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and, of course, The Life followed.
Despite their successes, both women say that show business can be particularly challenging for women of color and for women of a certain age. "It's difficult for women, period," says White, 63. "That's the A of it," picks up Merkerson, who will turn 62 in November. "And then as you get into all the subdivisions of it, it becomes even harder."
They'd both like to see more non-traditional casting of black actors as was done when Merkerson played Little Sheba's Lola and White played Grizabella. "I've done whores. I don't need to do that again," says White. "I was a really good whore, but I don't want to do that again."
Still, despite the challenges, neither can envision ever giving up the stage entirely. "Coming back to the theatre is always a place of comfort for me," says Merkerson. Adds White, "My sanctuary is up on that stage. There's nothing like that for me."