underrated

It’s Time for SNL Alum Danitra Vance to Get Her Due

Danitra Vance on Saturday Night Live. Photo: NBC

If you’re someone who prefers to run through a checklist of a comedian’s credits before deciding if they’re worth your time, then you’ll want to have your pencil sharpened — and maybe even have a backup writing utensil at the ready — before giving Marina Franklin’s filmography a once-over. In addition to working as a writer on HBO’s Divorce, she’s also appeared on Chappelle’s Show, Crashing, The Jim Gaffigan Show, Louie, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, and Women Who Kill.

These days, a big chunk of Franklin’s time is spent doing stand-up, so you may also have caught her plying her trade on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert or Conan. Indeed, thanks to her appearances on the latter show, you might well have seen her appearing live with Conan O’Brien, as she was selected for a stint on his current tour, Conan & Friends: An Evening of Stand-up and Investment Tips.

For her Underrated conversation, Franklin opted to focus not on a particular project but a specific individual — someone whose name tends to be remembered more as a pop-culture footnote rather than for her actual accomplishments as a comedic actor and writer. Mind you, that’s not to say that it isn’t important to remember that the late Danitra Vance was the first black female repertory member of Saturday Night Live, not to mention the show’s first lesbian cast member (although her sexuality wasn’t public knowledge until after her death in 1994). But Vance was decidedly underutilized during her stint on SNL, earning only cursory mention within the show’s oral history, Live From New York, and given how far ahead of the curve her material outside of the show tended to be, Franklin finds it understandably mystifying that Vance isn’t cited more often as an important figure in comedy.

As an SNL geek from way back, I immediately knew Danitra Vance’s name, but having done the requisite research to prepare for our conversation, I had no idea how much more there was to know about her.
Oh, yeah. I even had to go back because she was kind of who I started with when I would read books on black performers, but then I was like, “God, it’s been a while since I’ve looked at her stuff!”

How did you first become aware of Danitra? Was it through Saturday Night Live, or was it through other means?
Yeah, it was through other means. I mean, I watched Saturday Night Live and remembered her vaguely, but when I went to get my MFA at Syracuse, I was reading books on actors, and she had a book that, believe it or not, I still can’t find. I don’t know if they stopped printing it or what, but it was one of those books that just kind of opened up everything for me because it talked about everything that she’d done, but it also spoke to having a voice onstage. Being that I was in theater, she had a similar path to the one that I had. I didn’t know at that point that I was even going to go into comedy, but I liked everything that she was saying and doing because it was bringing the humanity to a black female character. So that really spoke to me, and then I was just amazed that there wasn’t more on her.

I remember watching SNL that season (1985–1986), and it was not a good season, but I’ve never forgotten her name. It wasn’t until I started delving into her theater work and the material she’d written that I became aware of just how underutilized she was when she was there.
Even though it seemed like she was unhappy with the roles that she was doing on the show — because they were just all these stereotypical roles — no one else was doing them the way she was doing them at the time. As stereotypical as they were, she was still speaking through those characters. She wasn’t doing them in a “black voice.” She was fighting against it. Like, when she does the “Shakespeare in the Slums” sketch, she doesn’t do a ghetto voice. It’s brilliant work that she’s doing, and it’s amazing that no one points back to how she was really … I mean, for me anyway, she was the first black woman to sort of go outside of the stereotype while doing a stereotypical character.

She didn’t have that many standout SNL sketches, probably because they didn’t really know what to do with her, which is prone to happen when you’re working with mostly white male writers. But she definitely shined in “That Black Girl,” the parody of the ’60s sitcom That Girl.
Yeah, the “That Black Girl” sketch for me … It feels like my story! [Laughs.] So whenever I write, like when I was working on a pilot of my own, “That Black Girl” plays out the entire time for me because it’s so weird to think that a black girl could play things the same way as this character that America loves. In fact, that just continually stays with me throughout everything I do, actually. But I’ll say to someone, “You know, ‘That Black Girl’!” And no one knows it. People are just like, “What are you talking about?” And you would think with Saturday Night Live — especially when they were searching for a black woman, but now that they have Leslie Jones — people would go, “Oh, wow, and before her there was Danitra Vance!” And there are articles, but her name, it’s still not on the tip of the tongue.

Thankfully, there are some videos on YouTube that show off some of her non-SNL work.
And by the way, I’d been looking for them for years, and not until you sent the email about this interview was I able to find them. But I was amazed at how many I was able to pull up.

They’re great, and they’re staggering in their intensity, especially compared to what she was doing on SNL. If they’d given her a chance to do anything that was even a tenth as powerful …
Right, and those are from The Colored Museum, by George C. Wolfe. Her character in it was, I believe, Miss Pat. It’s one of my favorite plays, and it’s so funny looking back on her now because I didn’t realize how much of her path I was actually following. But when I was at Syracuse, I actually directed The Colored Museum. It had all these little vignettes of different stereotypes of black characters, Miss Pat being one of them, and I actually took that monologue myself, and I would use it for auditions to get into theater school. So she was a heavy influence. Even if I didn’t realize it.

I think a lot of people who discover her through this piece will be surprised at the work she was doing back then. She really was ahead of her time.
Yeah, she’s talking about the LGBTQ community. She’s talking about breast cancer and exposed herself. You remember how Tig [Notaro] did that? Danitra did this years ago. There was, like, a New York Times article about how she’s exposing herself. I don’t know if she was the first one to do that, but she was definitely one to do it. And yet no one knows about it. I mean, there are people who know about it, but as far as her story goes, it should be a movie, actually. It really should.

There’s a Mother Jones piece about her Off Broadway show where the writer compares her to Whoopi Goldberg, and you can tell that Vance kind of bristles, because she says, “You make it seem as though there can only be one of us at a time.”
Yes! Yes! I really wish I knew her. Like, when there’s a black woman on Saturday Night Live … I mean, we have two right now, but there’s always a comparison. It’s always like, “Who’s gonna be the one?” And it’s not about being the one. Let’s have more than one! We have to stop looking to the one and then making sure that everyone is acting like “that black girl.” That’s what that sketch was so great about. It’s a comment on how you don’t really know us. Yeah, that black girl wants to catch a cab easily! That black girl, she’s a little uppity about stuff. Sure, why not? Yeah, that sketch was her fighting that fight way before anyone cared to make it a thing. Or a hashtag.

The most hilarious thing in the article is the ending, where it says that Vance is “itching for her own television series, in which she plays both Jillian Brazeale and Cabrini Green Harlem Watts Jackson — the 17-year-old mother of two — as long-lost sisters in a remake of The Patty Duke Show.
Wow. [Laughs.] See? I mean, she’s brilliant! There was no one like her. And the thing that’s great about her is that she was a great writer. But I don’t know how much room she’d get nowadays. When I speak to Leslie [Jones] and everyone else, I hear that they fight to write their pieces into the show.

I guess we should be glad that she got the characters on there that she did, but at the same time, again, just reading the stuff in that article, it’s hard not to consider what might’ve been. For instance, the author of the piece describes Jillian Brazeale, the character from her show, as “a Valley Girl who finds out she’s black only after she goes to college and is soon bundled off to a mental hospital, [where] therapists show her Gone With the Wind in an effort to get her to identify with Prissy rather than Scarlett.”
Yeah, it’s brilliant stuff. Just way too soon. Or maybe not! But the fact that in that time period she was trying to fight to show this other side of a black woman … I mean, for me anyway, going onstage, there’s always this feeling like I’m fighting this idea that people have of black women. And I feel like it’s starting to change. But Danitra was fighting against that in every piece. You can hear it. You can hear her going, “See, now if I do this, then you can see me as Danitra, not as ‘That Black Girl.’ You can see me, and you can see I have the same wants and needs.” It’s just so creative, and in an improv way. It’s like she takes these things, and then she takes it there.

It’s not easy stuff she’s doing. I look at it, and I look at her patience as she does these pieces, and I wonder if it would even work today with the short attention span that the audience has. But I find that what she did, it’s just so necessary for people to see, now more than ever, because now we have so many black women coming up and stepping out in the comedy scene and being recognized as being funny and smart. I mean, God, if there was ever a time to do her movie, it’s today. It makes me want to go back and find her family because I want to know her. It’s just sad that she was taken from us way too soon.

But she’s from everywhere I’m from. She’s from Markham, Illinois. I know Markham very well. I know her whole area, so I know where she comes from, spirit-wise. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities. I grew up in Highland Park, which is an all-white neighborhood, and then when I moved to the South Side, which was an all-black neighborhood, I was so confused that I thought I had to act a certain way. I thought I had to act, like, blacker than I was when I was on the South Side, and … I’m sure I looked ridiculous, actually. And then I took that out to the South Suburbs and was, like, “Ain’t nobody gonna mess with me!” It was like I was in Stir Crazy or something. So here I was going in, doing this stereotype because it was what I thought people wanted to see, and everyone was like, “What are you doing? We’re just here!” And they were going, “Like, why is she acting like that?” I was like, “Oh my God, okay, there are black kids who don’t act like that. So I can be me!”

You know, you were talking about stereotypes earlier, and there’s a song she did on SNL when Oprah Winfrey hosted.
Yeah, it was “I Write the Songs.” Or a parody of it, rather.

Right, it was called “I Play the Maids.” I’d seen pictures of her performing the song, but all of the clips I could find online were of such terrible quality.
Yeah, it’s hard to find her stuff, isn’t it? I mean, that’s the thing. That’s why I kept thinking about something that was underrated, and it was so hard for me because I feel like the black things are so underrated that you don’t know where they are! [Laughs.] You can’t find them. With Danitra, my struggle has always been to find the wholeness of who she was and everything that she did. Now, because of this article, to look for her and see that there were more videos up of her work, I was like, Okay, so we’re getting there with her. So that’s good. But you’re right — I would love to see the re-airing of that song. It’s brilliant stuff. And when she does Shakespeare and she’s basically breaking down for you how a girl from the slums translates it … I don’t even see that today. I haven’t seen the patience for that type of theater. That type of brilliance, I still yearn for that for black women.

I feel like Danitra really touched on it in a way that even today we’re still struggling to get back to because we can get away from it real fast. As part of my act, I used to talk about how I’m not a sassy black woman, and then I actually do the character of a sassy black woman, and the audience goes crazy. It’s a predominantly white audience, and they just go insane. And I say, “Well, I guess this is what you want … but that’s not who I am.” And I go back to just being me, and I go, “I just hurt my hip doing that! That energy is too much to maintain, and I’d have to do that all the time!” And I don’t really do that character anymore, but there are times when there’s a little bit of me that’s like, “They want you to do that character because that’s who they know, because that’s what they’ve seen.”

But with Danitra, when you look back at her videos, she’s completely different from all of that, even as she’s playing the characters. And that’s what speaks to me. That’s what’s always spoken to me: the fight to just be funny … and that’s it.

It’s Time for SNL Alum Danitra Vance to Get Her Due