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Danitra Vance appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1986 and acted in films such as Limit Up and Little Man Tate.
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"Danitra Vance and the Mell-O White Boys," as her act was titled, included her own crop of white male backup singers and remained enormously popular throughout its half-year run.
Vance's initial success as a comedian failed to translate into the financial realm, and she had to take retail work at Bloomingdale's to make ends meet. All that changed in 1985, though, when Vance was invited to join the cast of Saturday Night Live. She was the first black woman featured on the show as a regular cast member. But Vance was largely relegated to portraying racial stereotypes such as a subservient maid, a pregnant teenager and, in her most famous sketch, "that black girl." She decided to leave the cast of SNL in 1986 after just one season. That same year, Vance met playwright George C. Wolfe and appeared in the off-Broadway debut of his highly acclaimed play The Colored Museum. Several years later, in 1990, Vance turned in her most acclaimed acting performance, in Spunk, another Wolfe play, adapted from a collection of short stories by Zora Neale Hurston. Vance won both an NAACP Image Award and an Obie Award for her performance. In addition to her work on SNL and onstage, Vance appeared in films such as Limit Up (1989) opposite Ray Charles, and Little Man Tate (1991) opposite Jodie Foster.
Danitra Vance, a lesbian, lived for many years with her longtime partner Jones Miller. In 1990, when she was barely over 30 years old, Vance received a devastating medical diagnosis when she learned she had advanced breast cancer. She channeled her fight against the disease into her art, writing a new one-woman play, an autobiographical dramatization of her struggles with cancer. The Radical Girl's Guide to Mastectomy ran off-Broadway in 1991. Vance passed away on August 21, 1994, at the home of her grandfather in Markham, Illinois. She was only 35 years old.
Danitra Vance was a talented, daring and pathbreaking performer who, if not for her tragic early death, would likely still be pushing the boundaries of comedy on the stage today. Vance was known for playing many different characters at once, and in life too she embodied many different roles: classically trained actress, hilarious comedian, and feminist, black and gay-rights activist. Perhaps Vance's legacy is best summed up in the words of one of her many characters, the performance artist and rapper Aquanetta Feinstein, who declared, "I am somebody! And I am somebody else."
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