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NEW YORK — Asked whether being black or being a woman is the more defining element for Lt. Anita Van Buren, the no-nonsense officer on "Law & Order," actress S. Epatha Merkerson, who plays the role, didn't miss a beat:

"I don't think you can separate the two. Both define who the character is, and how she lives in the world.

"Blacks see the world differently than whites. Women see the world differently than men. Neither is more defining than the other. And that's true for me as a person as well."

Merkerson, who has completed her second year on the series, will be back home in Clinton, Md., until shooting starts for next season.

In the plot-driven, impersonal scheme of "Law & Order," Merkerson probably has less screen time than any of the show's regulars. But the role of Van Buren as a black policewoman in a white man's world is a constant subtext in the critically acclaimed, five-year-old police drama.

Her character was the focal point of one of last season's most unusual episodes, titled "Competence." In that installment, Van Buren is held up at an ATM by two black youths. One of the kids pulls a gun on her. In self-defense, she shoots him.

"When I read that script, it scared me," Merkerson says. "Who wants to shoot a kid? And a black kid? And Van Buren is a mother. But there were so many important issues that story covered--kids with guns, black-on-black crime, women being assaulted by men, women with children.

"Of course, what followed had a lot to do with the fact that Van Buren is a woman cop, and there was the unspoken belief among her colleagues that she was a female who got nervous.

"The episode was a first in a number of ways," Merkerson says. "It was the first time a character ever used a gun on the show, the first time we see family members of one of the characters and the first time one of the leads is the focal point throughout the story."

"Law and Order's" hallmark is that it is story-driven. Viewers learn little about the protagonists' private lives. And each script has a clearly defined format.

In the first half, following a crime, the cops (Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth, who's been dropped from the show) pursue suspects under Merkerson's supervision. In the second half, the accused is prosecuted by the assistant district attorneys (Sam Waterston and Jill Hennessy, supervised by D.A. Steven Hill).

"I love the format," Merkerson says. She replaced actor Dan Florek, who had played the lieutenant, and, along with Hennessy, enhanced the series' gender diversity.

Seated in a high canvas chair, Merkerson stares at herself in a mirror as a makeup artist reapplies blush and lipstick between scenes. It's all taking place at the "Law & Order" studios on 23rd Street, right off the Hudson River. Two small dogs, apparently pets of the makeup artist, are barking and running around.

"I've been a fan of this show from the beginning," Merkerson says. "And because I still want to continue enjoying the show, I never read the whole script, only my portions of it. I like to come home, see it on TV and then be surprised at how it all turned out."

Home for the 42-year-old Merkerson is her New York City apartment--"The same one I've had since I came here in 1978"--and the Clinton, Md., house that she shares with her husband, Toussaint L. Jones.

They recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary, a milestone in a 20-year relationship. Jones, a social worker, is the co-ordinator of a municipal program for the District of Columbia that deals with family preservation.

For 17 years, Merkerson has been a working actress or "actor," as she prefers to be called. "I hate the distinction. 'Actress' sounds diminishing somehow."

There is a straight-from-the-shoulder directness about the Saginaw, Mich., native ("me and Stevie Wonder were born there"), but at the same time, there is a certain reserve.

Merkerson has done a few movies, including a spot in "Terminator II," and her share of television: appearances on "The Cosby Show," "Equal Justice" and an opening-season episode of "Law & Order." She also starred in the series "Mann & Machine," produced by "L&O" creator Dick Wolf, and last season starred on the NBC's "Here & Now."

Wolf invited her to read for the role of Van Buren. Still, Merkerson was aware of potential obstacles and chose to change her look for the two audition readings.

"Having appeared on several NBC programs, I suspected NBC executives felt viewers might be saturated with me already. I also suspected they were not comfortable with my hair. I wear dreadlocks. This is a wig." She points to her elegantly coiffed Van Buren hair. "So for the auditions, I let my hair out. It made all the difference. Suddenly they thought I was versatile."

She adds, "Van Buren wouldn't be a lieutenant in the police department if she wore dreadlocks. She certainly wouldn't move through the ranks as quickly as she has. ... She has to appear politically conservative. I think she is conservative, although the writers and I talked about showing her at home removing the wig to reveal dreadlocks."

"Law & Order," in a temporary move from its Wednesday night slot, airs Saturday at 10 p.m. and weeknights at 8 p.m. in reruns on A&E.

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