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S. Epatha Merkerson On Her New Series, ‘Find Our Missing,’ And Making History On ‘Law & Order’

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The Huffington Post
Brennan Williams
February 15, 2012

With African Americans accounting for more than 30 percent of missing-person cases in America, TV One’s “Find Our Missing” aims to make a difference in bringing them home. The 10-episode, hour-long docu-drama series, which premiered last month, is hosted by “Law & Order” star S. Epatha Merkerson and puts a spotlight on missing black Americans who have not gotten national media attention.

The Golden Globe-winning and Tony Award-nominated actress recently talked to The Huffington Post about the new series, her experience directing the forthcoming documentary “The Contradictions of Fair Hope” and her historic 16-season stint on “Law & Order.”

What initially attracted you to “Find Our Missing”?

The interesting thing is that I kept hearing this dialogue about it. Here in New York, you don’t always need a car, but I’ve been using mine lately and listening to a lot of talk radio. And I noticed that there’s been this dialogue, especially on the black radio stations, about the dearth of information on people of color who are missing on a national scale. So when TV One called and asked me to host, I thought to myself, “Wow, some things happen for a reason.” There was a reason why I was hearing this dialogue, because it was this show coming up. And it was a no-brainer when they asked. And there’s something about being proactive with the quote- unquote use of celebrity. And this is certainly a proactive way for me to give back to a community that has been so gracious and loving to me.

What are your thoughts on African Americans making up nearly a third of the nation’s missing person cases?

I don’t understand a lot of why so many of our people are missing. One of the things that TV One has done is that they have partnered with an organization called the Black & Missing Foundation. And Derrica Wilson, who founded the organization, made a statement once — that I thought was just devastating — that a lot of the missing young women between the ages of 11 and 17 are a part of human trafficking, and so it becomes more important that we have a national forum to discuss these stories and these cases, because we might be talking about something that happens in Chicago, but indeed, these young people may be in California, they may be in Florida, they may be here in New York. So, why do we have so many in our community missing? I’m not the person who can answer that question. I’m not the expert in the field, but I believe that what TV One is doing, which I appreciate, is that they’re trying to make a difference. They’re putting this show in a national forum so that someone somewhere may see one of these episodes, and it may jar their memory. It may bring up something they thought was inconsequential and yet it can be a very important component in the finding of one of these missing people. What is even more important is that it’s not just about young people. We’re covering stories from toddler to adult, because there are so many people that go missing.

In addition to serving as the show’s host, do you provide any creative input into the show?

Only in what involves me, in terms of the words that are said, and that’s really it. The producers of the show, Donna Wilson and Mike Snyder, they have this down. One of the things that they’re doing — that I think is really, really important and fascinating in the telling of the stories — is that they’re not telling these stories on a set, they’re going to the actual place where the person went missing. And that is so important, because it gives you a visual as well. But my involvement is really as the face for the call to action, which happens at the end of every story, where you’re shown a picture of the person who’s missing. You get their vital statistics and the date that they went missing. And there’s a local number that you can call where you can access the investigators working the cases immediately. And then there’s the website for TV One that you can access.

Outside of the current 10-show commitment, are there any plans to renew the series for another season?

I hope so, but you know it is television, so I guess people who are involved with TV will know better than I what is needed to keep a show going. If you ask me, the show is needed, so I’m hoping that not only do we get some response from the stories that we’re telling, but that people and the powers that be will allow the show to continue, because it is something that is desperately needed. I believe that the local law enforcement and the local news media work on these cases, but all of these cases need a national forum. And so I think it’s fabulous that TV One has taken on this job. Wednesday nights at 10 o’clock, folks can sit down and they can be involved in the lives of families all over this country who are missing their loved ones.

In addition to hosting “Find Our Missing,” are you currently working on any other projects?

I just finished a documentary, “The Contradictions of Fair Hope,” about a little-known organization down in Alabama that was created in 1888 [The Fairhope Benevolent Society]. And we’ve been doing the festival circuit with the film.

Is there a tentative release date set for the documentary?

No, we don’t have that yet, we’re just new in the process. Right now we’re just trying to get the film seen and we’re doing all that we can to see if we can find a place where it can be shown. We took the story back to the beginning of the creation of the Benevolent Society, and we come all the way to now to show the way this organization has morphed from what it originally was to what it is now. So hopefully we’ll get distribution. That’s what we’re looking for.

After spending 16 years on “Law & Order,” do you have any plans to return to television as an actor?

I’m still a working actor, so I still look for work. If it’s television, if it’s stage, if it’s film, I’m still going to be looking for work. Do I have any immediate plans? No. But am I looking? Yes [Laughs].

What are your thoughts on having played Anita Van Buren on “Law & Order” for 16 years, which makes her the longest-running African-American character on an American drama?

One of the things that I never knew when I took the job is that I would end up being a piece of television trivia. But I think that what is most important is that Anita Van Buren is a well-respected character, and that she had 16 years on television is just a great way to have role models that I didn’t have. There was Diahann Carroll in “Julia” and a couple of examples, but I think it’s great that there’s this solid, respected black character who’s been on television and a really good show. “Law & Order” was a well-produced and well-written show. It had a lot of integrity. So for me to be involved with a show for that long is really very cool

Photo credit: TV One

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