Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
SNL’s first gay black female repertory player Danitra Vance joined during the show’s eleventh season, and though she had a background as a classically trained Shakespearian actor, Second City performer, and recent Off-Broadway favorite, she spent her single season stint mostly relegated to black bit parts. That fact, along with the transitional and tumultuous nature of Michaels’s first season back at SNL, often overshadows Vance’s innovative contributions during her stint, from making jokes about Planned Parenthood accessibility to singing an ode to her typical roles with “I Play The Maids.”
After briefly studying at the National College of Education in Evanston, Vance – a South Side native – transferred to Roosevelt University in Chicago in 1975 to study acting and playwriting, then earned her MFA in acting from the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. After graduating she moved to New York but found no luck landing the Shakespearian roles she had trained for in London (her New York reception summed up by her sister to The Chicago Tribune in 1994: “Sorry, blacks don’t do Shakespeare”) and, with no other options, she taught high school in Gary, Indiana while using her off-time to develop her own characters and material that she showcased in Chicago nightclubs, which led to a brief stint at Second City before Vance moved to New York City in 1981.
With her Chicago success to back her up, Vance finally found her niche in New York performing at BACA Downtown, the Brooklyn Arts Council’s alternative performance space that helped launch the careers of Spike Lee, Danny DeVito, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks. While there, Vance developed a style that melded stand-up, confessional, and performance art elements and created a growing list of characters who later showed up on SNL including the feminist theory-teaching stripper Harriet Hetero, “avant-garde rap musical” star Acquanetta Feinstein, Robin the Reluctant Transexual, federally funded “Shakespeare in the Slums” thespian Flotilda Williams (“Hey Romeo, hey Romeo, where you at?”), and “career lesbian”/author/”lesbian recruiter” Bryn Mawr Smith Radcliffe Vassar. Her popularity at BACA earned her a six-month gig at the experimental Off-Broadway theater La MaMa, where she performed with a group of white male backup singers under the moniker “Danitra Vance and the Mell-O White Boys.”
Vance joined the all-new cast of SNL in 1985 when Lorne Michaels returned as producer. Following Dick Ebersol’s star-studded 10th season cast, Michaels’s ensemble was more of a mixed bag between stars like Anthony Michael Hall, Randy Quaid, and Robert Downey Jr. and Vance’s fellow newcomers Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, and Terry Sweeney who, like Vance, was SNL’s first openly gay cast member. Vance was also the show’s first black female repertory player; Yvonne Hudson, who barely appeared in season 6, never received a bump from featured status.
Despite her trailblazing, Vance spent her single season on the show largely frustrated with being relegated to stereotypical black female roles – a familiar struggle she captured perfectly in “That Black Girl,” a parody of the 1960s sitcom That Girl as well as in the 1986 cold open sketch “Beat Her!” with host Oprah Winfrey, in which Vance plays Lorne Michaels’s Celie-ish servant. In the sketch, Michaels can’t get Oprah to agree to perform as Aunt Jemima so he turns to Vance: “Danitra, you’re black?” “Yes, Mr. Lorne.” “Maybe you could help me out?” The same episode, she sang the Barry Manilow parody “I Play The Maids.” Aside from her two appearances as Latoya Marie AKA “That Black Girl,” Vance’s only other recurring character was the pregnant teen spokesperson Cabrini Green Jackson – a good example of what she was trying to combat in “I Play The Maids” – and she impersonated four singer/actresses Leslie Uggams, Diahann Carroll, Lola Falana, and Cicely Tyson.
Frustrated with being pigeonholed into roles like Cabrini, Vance left SNL at the end of the season. The same year she met playwright George C. Wolfe and appeared in his Off-Broadway plays The Colored Museum and, later in 1990, Spunk, his adaptation of several Zora Neale Hurston short stories. Vance’s work with Wolfe earned her both an NAACP Image Award as well as an Obie, and she also began to build a film career with both supporting roles (1988’s Sticky Fingers, 1989’s The War of the Roses, 1991’s Hangin’ with the Homeboys) as well as leading parts (opposite Ray Charles in 1989’s Limit Up; opposite Jodie Foster in 1991’s Little Man Tate).
In 1991, Vance was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer. She channeled her battles with the illness into a one-woman play The Radical Girl’s Guide to Mastectomy, which ran Off-Broadway the same year. Her last film credit came with her supporting role in 1992’s Jumpin’ at the Boneyard, and in 1993 she did another solo show and revived her Harriet Hetero character, this time pulling off her shirt to expose her scarred torso to the audience. “This wasn’t something I wanted to do,” she told The New Yorker, “but I had to show, for other women, that this body is still O.K. I think my scar is beautiful.” Vance died two years later on August 23, 1994 in her grandfather’s Markham, Illinois home at only 35 years old. She was survived by her longtime partner Jones Miller, and her family put on a “going-away party” for her afterward complete with bean bag tossing and apple-bobbing out of respect for her final request that her funeral be held at an amusement park.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.