|Subject: ARCHIVE: August 21, 1994 ~Funny lady Danitra Vance, who brief tenure as TV's SNL 1st black cast member, marked a milestone (also as 1st LGBT member) bringing "black girl That Girl", and 'Cabrini Green Jackson' characters to the sketch comedy series, later breaking into films, sadly dying of breast cancer at only age 40. ...
Bio & PHOTOS
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Date Posted: Wednesday, August 21, 02:26:11pm
(July 13, 1954 – August 21, 1994)
American comedian and actress best known as a cast member on the NBC sketch show Saturday Night Live (SNL) during its eleventh season and for work in feature films like Sticky Fingers (1988), Limit Up (1990) and Jumpin' at the Boneyard (1992). She performed for The Second City, was an "Off-Broadway favorite", and was the first black woman of the primary SNL cast and tied for the first LGBT member, though she was not openly out. Her comedy and theater work featured themes of social issues, including that of being consistently stereotyped during casting. During her career, she received an Obie Award and an NAACP Image Award. In 1989, Vance was diagnosed with breast cancer. She performed several works through remission and recurrence until her death in 1994. Before her death, she requested her family host her services at an amusement park.
Early life and early career …
Raised in the South Side, Chicago, Vance grew up with her mother, younger sister, and maternal grandparents in a household where telling stories was the main form of entertainment, and 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 National College of Education before transferring to Roosevelt University in 1975, where she studied playwriting and acting, and graduated with honors. She then moved to London to study at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, where she was classically trained in Shakespeare and earned a MFA.
Vance started her career performing with The Second City improv group before moving to New York City in 1981 with goals of performing only to face direct discrimination and return to the midwest to teach high school in Gary, Indiana, where her students helped inspire characters in her next show. She initially performed the characters in Old Town, Chicago.
From November 30 – December 11, 1984, Vance mounted the 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), described as a "ghetto Shakespearean actress".
Saturday Night Live …
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 in 1981), the only SNL cast member to have a learning disability, 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 2019. 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. She had dyslexia and was the only SNL cast member to have a learning disability. 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.
Vance appeared on SNL during a time of great transition for the show outside her roles, while she herself became frustrated over being put into roles that were stereotypically associated with young, black women: such as waitresses; nurses; secretaries; unwed, welfare-dependent mothers (her recurring character, Cabrini Green Jackson, easily fell into this category); 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 (supposedly as 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 its opening line, "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"), a satirical song that expressed frustration over black actresses (and herself) being typecast as maids in films and on television shows. Ironically, one of Danitra Vance's celebrity impersonations was of Cicely Tyson (in The Pee Wee Herman Thanksgiving Special sketch), who avoided film or TV roles that stereotyped black 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, the other first LGBT member of the SNL cast.
Recurring characters on SNL …
That Black Girl, a black actress looking to hit the big time,
despite being passed up because of her race (parody of Marlo Thomas's That Girl)
=Cabrini Green Jackson, a professional teenage mother
and motivational speaker who gives advice on teen pregnancy
Celebrity impersonations …
=Diahann Carroll (as Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty)
Late career …
She was awarded an NAACP Image Award in 1986 and later won an Obie Award for Distinguished Performance by an Actress 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". She expanded on her experiences in a second, autobiographical show, titled "Pre-Shrunk" and to be performed at The Public Theater, but was unable to perform, as the cancer recurred in 1993 and she died of the disease the following year in Markham, Illinois. She requested her funeral be held at an amusement park, and her family threw her a "going-away party" with apple bobbing and bean bag tossing to respect her wishes. She was survived by her partner, Jones Miller.
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