Born July 13, 1954, in Chicago, this comedian and actress was the first black woman to become a regular on Saturday Night Live and was also well known for her roles in off-Broadway productions of The Colored Museum and Spunk.
Danitra Vance was born July 13, 1954 in Chicago, Illinois. An intelligent and outgoing child, she attended Chicago's Thornton Township High School, where she excelled at theater and on the debate team. Vance studied briefly at the National College of Education in suburban Evanston before transferring to Roosevelt University in Chicago in 1975 to study acting and playwriting. One of her scripts, entitled "Skylark," was produced at the university, and is best remembered for one character's proclamation: "To hell with Elizabeth Barrett Browning." Upon graduating with honors from Roosevelt University, Vance immediately moved to London to get her MFA in acting from the Webster-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Vance returned to Chicago in the late 1970s to pursue a career as a professional actress. However, despite her classical training and immense talent, she struggled to find satisfying work, as there were very few meaningful roles written for black women at the time. After seeing the pioneering African-American actress Ruby Dee perform in an all-black production of "Come Blow Your Horn," Vance asked Dee's advice. Acknowledging that there were many talented black actresses and few scripts with significant black female roles, Dee advised her, "We need writers. You should start writing." Vance took her advice. While working as a high school teacher during the day, at night Vance developed her own material – an innovative hybrid of a standup comedy routine and a one-woman play – and began performing at Chicago-area nightclubs. An almost instant success, she performed for a brief run with Chicago's famed Second City Comedy Troupe before deciding to move to New York City in 1981.
In 1982, about a year after arriving in New York, Vance booked a gig at BACA Downtown, an alternative Brooklyn performance space that provided the launchpad for her career. "This is the first place in New York where I ever felt comfortable," she later recalled. "When I found BACA, I said, 'Ah – people who understand what I'm doing.'" It was at BACA that Vance refined her humor into the intelligent, biting and provocative routine for which she would soon be famous. Her repertoire of outlandish characters included Acquanetta Feinstein, the star of an avant-garde rap musical; Harriet Hetero, a feminist stripper who educates her customers on feminist theory while pole dancing; Flotilda Williams, the arts director of Shakespeare in the Slums; and Bryn Mawr Smith Radcliffe Vassar, a lesbian college recruiter. Mainstream club audiences would think, "What is this? What about your girlfriend and how fat she is?" Vance said. "I was always happier in the little alternative spaces." Nevertheless, Vance's act became so popular that she landed an ongoing gig at the famous experimental Manhattan theater La MaMa. "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.
Saturday Night Live
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 40 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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