Distinctive in both her talent and down-to-earth appearance, Merkerson started out on stage, appearing off-off-Broadway and in regional theater. In the 1980s, she landed her first series-regular TV role, as Reba the mail lady on Pee-wee's Playhouse, and essayed a handful of guest spots. Merkerson seemed destined to become one of the legions of working no-name actors, until everything changed for her in the 1990s. After being nominated for a 1991 Tony for her searing turn in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson, Merkerson gave a devastating performance as a grieving mother on an episode of Law & Order. The next year, she again worked with L&O creator Dick Wolf on the short-lived sci-fi/crime series Mann & Machine, on which she played a cop. So when L&O introduced no-nonsense police lieutenant Anita Van Buren in Season 4, Merkerson was a shoo-in for the part. In addition to her most high-profile gig, she's taken on a variety of small roles in features and TV movies, and regularly returned to her theatrical roots. But in 2005, a different small-screen project brought Merkerson her greatest accolades to date: the TV movie Lackawanna Blues, for which her turn as the lively head of a boardinghouse earned Merkerson an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and an NAACP Image Award. In 2010, she announced that L&O's 20th season would be her last, after 17 years playing Anita Van Buren---the longest-appearing black character on a prime-time drama in TV history.