By Andrea Plaid
OK, can we just crush the fuck on out over the woman’s name for a minute, like a throw-rose-petals-and-shake-our-butts-because-her-name-is-that-badass minute?
And Merkerson has the acting accolades to go with, to bite from Racialicious staffer Fatemeh Fakhraie, her fabulady name. The actor has been bestowed an Emmy, an Obie, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and four–yes, four–NAACP Awards (among many, many honors). But if you’ve seen her command-the-stage-and-screen performances–from her most well-known role as NYPD Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on NBC’s Law & Order to her beloved turn as Reba the Mail Lady on Pee-Wee Playhouse or her first leading role in the TV adaptation of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s play Lakawanna Blues (which is the role that scored her the aforementioned Emmy, the Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild Award in 2006)–you know she’s earned each and every one of those awards.
Merkerson started her life in the Midwest: she was born and reared in Saginaw, MI and graduated from Wayne State University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Growing up in Michigan during the racial strife of the 60s touched her life as well: not only did she see “white flight” in the all-white neighborhood she and her family moved to when she was 13, but a police officer put a gun to her head when he and his partner pulled her and her brother over just so the partner could check her brother’s identification. The reason: she was driving a car similar to a suspect the cops have been searching for. Even at Wayne State, Merkerson said, as the only person of color in her drama department at the time, she was discouraged from auditioning.
In spite of that–or because of it–she started her acting in career in Albany, NY in 1975 then moved to New York City for theater work in 1978. Oddly enough, on top of her other honoraries, Wayne State University also gave her an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters almost three decades later. And she pays the favor forward as an acting teacher at New York City College.
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.”
She’s also an incredible anti-smoking advocate, having both lost friends to smoking-related illness and having her own health scare due to her nearly two-and-a-half-decades smoking habit. She’s also lends her stature to the TV One show Find Our Missing, a missing-persons docu-drama all about people of color who have disappeared which serves as a counternarrative to overemphasis on the missing-white-women-and-children shows and news reports.
If you’re not a Merkerson stan or fan–and are feeling just lazy enough to not google it–you may wonder what the “S” in her name stands for. Her birth name is Sharon Epatha Merkerson, but she legally changed it to S. Epatha. If you get to know her like that, she prefers to go by her middle name, which is the name of her father’s teacher who was influential in keeping him in school.
And, hopefully, one of her acting students will return the favor and name their child after this amazing actor and advocate.