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July 13, 1954|
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
August 21, 1994 (aged 40)|
Markham, Illinois, U.S.
|Cause of death||Breast Cancer|
|Other names||Dan Vance|
Danitra Vance (July 13, 1954 – August 21, 1994) was an American comedian and actress best known as a cast member on the NBC sketch show Saturday Night Live during its eleventh season and for work in feature films like Sticky Fingers (1988), Limit Up (1990) and Jumpin' at the Boneyard (1992).
Born in Chicago, Vance graduated from nearby Thornton Township High School in 1972. In high school she was active in theater and was a member of the debate team. She later attended Roosevelt University and graduated with honors. She then studied drama at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.
From November 30 - December 11, 1984, Vance mounted her show, "Danitra Vance and the Mell-o White Boys," at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. In a review of the piece that ran in the Village Voice, theater critic Alisa Solomon wrote that Vance's comedy "stabs while it entertains, actually causing a physical catch in your laughter, as she undercuts every pose she takes...Beginning with and then undermining stereotypes, Vance creates an unsettling tension among stereotypes, reality, and the conditions that create stereotypes." Among the characters she performed in the show were several that she later developed on Saturday Night Live - including Cabrini Green Jackson (described below) and Flotilla Williams (who performs a version of Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene from her fire escape).
Vance was the first African American woman to become an SNL repertory player in 1985 (not to be confused with Yvonne Hudson from season six, who first appeared as a recurring extra for season four (1978-1979) and season five (1979-1980) and was hired as a feature player during Jean Doumanian's notoriously shaky 1981 season), the only SNL cast member to have a learning disability (Vance was dyslexic and, according to Al Franken in the book Live from New York: The Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, she had trouble memorizing lines and reading cue cards, though this was not made apparent in most cases and, in one case, ad-libbing covered it up), was the first lesbian cast member hired (though her sexual orientation never became public knowledge until her death), and the only black lesbian cast member as of 2016. She is best remembered for the sketch "That Black Girl," (a spoof of the 1960s sitcom That Girl), and for her character Cabrini Green Harlem Watts Jackson, a teenage mother who dispensed advice on the dos and don'ts of being pregnant. Both were recurring characters during her time on SNL.
Vance appeared on SNL during a time when critics and fans were greatly disappointed in Lorne Michaels' return to his famous sketch comedy show (following the failure of his other sketch show: NBC's The New Show) and were calling for the show to end due to a decline in quality. Vance herself was frustrated over being put into roles that were stereotypically associated with young, black women (such as waitresses, nurses, secretaries, unwed, welfare-dependent mothers [which was one of her recurring characters in the form of Cabrini Green Jackson], and "mammy"-style maids/house slaves in Civil War-based sketches). The last type of role was made evident during the episode hosted by Oprah Winfrey in spring of 1986 where in the cold opening, Vance played Lorne Michaels' personal slave (who was actually supposed to be the character Celie from the movie The Color Purple) who convinces Michaels to force Oprah into performing stereotypically black roles by beating her, only to have Oprah choke Lorne in a headlock while opening the show with "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" In a short musical sketch on the same episode, Vance sang "I Play The Maids" (a spin on "I Write the Songs" made famous by Barry Manilow), a satirical song that expressed frustration over black actresses (and herself) being typecast as maids in films and on television shows. One of Danitra Vance's celebrity impersonations was of Cicely Tyson (in The Pee Wee Herman Thanksgiving Special sketch), who was known for not playing any role that stereotyped African-American women and, during her hosting stint on the fourth season (1978-1979), was shocked and disgusted that Garrett Morris was put in lesser roles on the show.
Vance ultimately chose to leave SNL at the end of the 1986 season along with many other cast members from that season who were dismissed, including Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr., Randy Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall, and Terry Sweeney.
Recurring characters on SNL
- That Black Girl, a black actress looking to hit the big time, despite being passed up because of her race. This was a parody of Marlo Thomas's 1960s-1970s situation comedy That Girl.
- Cabrini Green Jackson, a professional teenage mother and motivational speaker who gives advice on teen pregnancy.
- Diahann Carroll (as Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty, in a monologue featuring Terry Sweeney as Joan Collins' Alexis Colby Dexter and episode host Catherine Oxenberg).
- Lola Falana
- Cicely Tyson
- Leslie Uggams
She was awarded an NAACP Image Award in 1986 and later won an Obie Award for her performance in the theatrical adaptation of Spunk, a collection of short stories written by Zora Neale Hurston. That same year, Vance was also in the original cast of George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum; she would go on to reprise some of her performances therein for a 1991 Great Performances restaging of the play.
Vance was the second female lead opposite Nancy Allen in Limit Up, where she played a guardian angel on assignment for God being played by Ray Charles. She had small roles in The War of the Roses and Little Man Tate and a more significant role in Jumpin' at the Boneyard, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990, Vance underwent a single mastectomy and incorporated the experience into a solo skit, "The Radical Girl's Guide to Radical Mastectomy". The cancer recurred in 1993 and she died of the disease the following year in Markham, Illinois. She was survived by her longtime companion, Jones Miller.
|The War of the Roses||Manicurist Trainee|
|1991||Hangin' with the Homeboys||Pool hall couple|
|Little Man Tate||Clinic doctor|
|1992||Jumpin' at the Boneyard||Jeanette|
|1985–1986||Saturday Night Live||Various||18 episodes|
|1987||Miami Vice||Annette McAllister||1 episode|
|1989||The Cover Girl and the Cop||Television movie|
|Trying Times||Emma St. John||1 episode|
|1991||Great Performances: The Colored Museum||Miss Pat/The Woman/Normal Jean Reynolds||1 episode|
- Brantley, Ben (1994-08-23). "Danitra Vance, 35, an Actress; Worked at Shakespeare Festival". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-12.
- "Production Page: Danitra Vance And The Mell-O White Boys (1984)". La MaMa's Digital Collections Website. 1984.
- Solomon, Alisa (December 18, 1984). ""Danitra Vance and the Mell-o White Boys"". Village Voice.
- Watch Shakespeare in the Slums from Saturday Night Live on NBC.com, retrieved 2018-03-03