|S. Epatha Merkerson, the sturdy Lt. Anita Van Buren on Law & Order, had just finished a press conference regarding her lead role in HBO's upcoming movie, Lackawanna Blues. |
The first question in the hallway, outside the interview room: "What was your reaction to what happened on Wednesday night?"
A look of bewilderment crossed her face. "What do you mean, what happened?"
Merkerson was unaware of the episode's controversial ending, which also ended the run of Elizabeth Rohm in her role of Serena Southerlyn, the assistant district attorney.
After the story line about the murder of a New York rap singer ended, District Attorney Arthur Branch (Fred Dalton Thompson) called Serena into his office and fired her. Arthur's complaint: Serena, as a prosecutor, uses her heart more often than her head.
Arthur told Serena she'd do much better in advocacy work then she would in prosecution.
Serena's reply: "Is this because I'm a lesbian?"
She turned and left the room. The screen went dark, followed by the traditional credits for creator and executive producer Dick Wolf.
It was a jaw-dropping ending for L&O's millions of fans - and, apparently, also for Merkerson.
"I had no idea this was coming. I was aware this was Elizabeth's last show. She wants to do other things. But I didn't know how the script would set up her departure."
Merkerson pointed out that the "law" and "order" segments of the 15-year-old series are often filmed on different days in New York. From that perspective, Law & Order is almost two different shows.
Some scenes call for Lt. Van Buren to interact with the district attorney's office. But most of the time she is too busy ordering her two detectives around on murder cases.
While the ending produced controversial shock waves, the lesbian aspect had no dramatic logic, mainly because of a lack of prior indication that Rohm's character was gay.
As viewers know, Law & Order scripts rarely delve into the personal lives of the characters. And many critics note there wasn't even any offhand dialogue about the sexual preference of Rohm's character.
The advocacy vs. prosecution conflict did make sense, because several previous scripts had featured Serena's arguments with Arthur Branch and Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) about the prosecution of murder cases. But the quick lesbian connection offered Law & Order writing at its worst.
Fans will meet Serena's replacement, Alexandra Borgia (no relation to Lucrezia), played by Annie Parisse in Wednesday's episode, which deals with deaths caused by a fake flu vaccine.
And the tune-in should be high. Viewers will be curious to meet the new cast member and to see if there's more of a scripted resolution surrounding the departure of Rohn's character. Could it be Law & Order producers used the last-minute lesbian story line simply to gain viewers in the series' Wednesday night ratings battle against CBS' CSI:NY?
Meanwhile, Merkerson is enjoying the spotlight surrounding her temporary liberation from her button-down character in Law & Order. Based on Ruben Santiago-Hudson's critically acclaimed off-Broadway autobiographical production, Lackawanna Blues, airing Feb. 12, recounts life in Lackawanna, N.Y., in the mid-'50s on the eve of desegregation. The story is told through the eyes of the young Santiago-Hudson, growing up in that environment.
Merkerson plays Rachel (Nanny) Crosby, a larger-than-life matron whose heart is as large as the boardinghouse she operates - a colorful place where drifters, dreamers and eccentrics can always find a hot meal and a new start.
Nanny's place is "a piece of heaven on earth" for segregated blacks, who boogie to the jukebox, drink, eat, play cards or shoot craps. Merkerson, outstanding as Nanny, loved every minute of filming.
"There are certain things Van Buren does every week on Law & Order," she said. "They are constant and consistent. Every now and then you see a little quirk in her, a little sense of humor. But basically she tells the guys what to do. They go do it. And if they come back wrong, she goes after them.
"Lackawanna Blues was the opportunity of my career. At 51, with hot flashes, I got to play this part. It was fabulous."
Merkerson calls the role liberating: "A chance to really laugh and cry. And you know what? You'll never see Van Buren dance like Nanny. It simply won't happen."