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9 Quick Questions for S. Epatha Merkerson

Award-winning actress lends her voice to PBS’s National Memorial Day Concert

spinner image S. Epatha Merkerson in a black dress leaning against a window overlooking city buildings
Maarten de Boer/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Award-winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson, 70, who played Lt. Anita Van Buren on Law & Order for nearly two decades, is joining other actors, singers and musicians to pay tribute to U.S. service members at PBS’s May 28 National Memorial Day Concert. The event honors fallen military service members and their loved ones, including Gold Star Families who have lost family members serving during times of conflict.

 

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At the National Memorial Day Concert, you’ll be sharing the story of three generations of one Gold Star Family. How do you do that justice?

To just be as honest with the story as it is written — to honor the young men and women who do something I don’t think I could. I look at my brother and some of my cousins. They served with honor, and it’s something that I have great admiration for. My oldest brother is a veteran of the Vietnam era, and one is still in the service.

You’ve participated in this event before [in 2016]. What are you looking forward to?

It’s always lovely to see Gary [Sinise, the event cohost]. There’s sadness connected to it, but it’s really a joyous occasion to be able to uplift the Gold Star Families and to let them hear their words. I think that’s really important. And just the pomp of it — the music and the bands. It’s an amazing event. I can remember over the years watching it. So to be a part of it is really cool.

spinner image s. epatha merkerson onstage at the 2016 memorial day concert in washington, dc with images of tombstones, american flags and singers in the background
Merkerson, onstage at the 2016 National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C., is honoring service members at the event again this year.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Capitol Concerts

Do you have a special memory from the last time you came to D.C. to participate in the concert?

A tour of Arlington [National] Cemetery, which I had never done before. There were six or eight guys standing very solemnly at a grave site, and on the back of their jackets they had [the words] New York. So I waited for them, and it was probably one of the most incredible meetings I’ve ever had. They told me the story of the young man who was the son of one of the guys. And it was incredible. They were all veterans. Of anything, that’s probably my fondest memory. And they knew, of course, Law & Order, so we got into some of that conversation. But they were so generous with their feelings, that … I get a little teary. Having [a] tour from someone who is a veteran, who oversees [the cemetery] — there was so much I didn’t know just about the land itself. I will always remember that.

Speaking of Law & Order, were you surprised when the show was brought back this year?

No, I actually knew that it was coming back and tried to talk Dick [creator/producer Dick Wolf]  into letting me come back home. But it didn’t work. It didn’t work out because my character on [Chicago] Med is so established.

spinner image S. Epatha Merkerson with arms crossed standing in front of Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin in Law and Order
Merkerson starred on NBC's Law & Order along with Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin.
NBC/Everett Collection

Anything on your D.C. sightseeing list for this trip?

I haven’t seen the King monument [Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial]. I do want to do that. But other than that, having lived down in the suburbs of D.C. before, and when people would come to visit, I’ve done the monument thing. In fact, my oldest brother’s a lawyer who was in the Air Force. I remember the first time he came down. It was actually his first visit to D.C., and all he wanted to do was to go to the Supreme Court and stand on the steps. So we did that. I have great photographs of him and I tooling around the city looking at all the monuments. It’s beautiful when you go to the Memorial Day event because of where you are. Just standing around is awe-inspiring.

You’ve worked in film, theater and, of course, TV. What have been your favorite roles?

Well, I do love both of these characters, Van Buren and Goodwin [Chicago Med character Sharon Goodwin], because they are women who are in charge, and I think it’s important. I always say that television, at its best, entertains, but it also educates. Young women see these two characters and they can aspire to someone who has strength, who has a heart but who knows her business and will not be shaken.That’s important and has a sense of justice. On stage, there have been a few. A while ago, I did a play, Come Back, Little Sheba by William Inge, in a part that has never been done by a Black woman. So the talkbacks were extraordinary. Not to mention that it takes place in the ’50s, and the kids that would come to see the show couldn’t understand why she was tethered to the phone.

How does working in Chicago compare to New York City?

You know, if you’re going to sit somewhere, Chicago’s not a bad place to sit. We just finished our eighth season. As they say, when you get older, time goes by so quickly. And it really did. But you know, there’s so much that I can do there that I do here. There’s amazing theater. It’s an easy city to get around in in terms of where I am. I’m in the downtown area, so I can walk to most anything I need. The food is great. Great music. It’s got that Midwestern mentality, which I grew up with. I grew up in Detroit. It’s not a bad place to sit.      

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What’s your favorite way to spend Memorial Day?

If someone’s cooking out and they invite me, I’m going to go. Honestly, I have one particular cousin who is still very much an Army man and so I always reach out to him on Memorial Day. It’s one of the things that I’ve been doing for years. That’s one special thing I do.

You turned 70 in November. Did you have a big celebration?

I usually do on the decades because I have no issue with getting older. I had huge ones for 40, 50 and 60.  I didn’t do anything this year for it. I lost my mother in September, three months shy of her 96th birthday. I started cooking Thanksgiving when my mother couldn’t go into the kitchen anymore. So I was at home with my siblings — I’m the youngest of five. We all had a big laugh at how quickly we all got here — baby sis at 70. That was great fun. I had an agent once who said to me, “Stop telling people how old you are.” It’s like, “Well, I’m not 20 anymore. I’m not 30 anymore. I’m certainly not 40 or 50. I’m not 60. I don’t have any issue with saying my age.”

          

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