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.
Vance was the first African American woman to become a SNL repertory player (not to be confused with Yvonne Hudson from season six, who first appeared as a recurring extra and was hired as a feature player), and was the first lesbian cast member hired (though her sexual orientation wasn't known until her death in 1994). 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 do's and don'ts of being pregnant. Both were recurring characters during her time on SNL.
Vance appeared on SNL during a time of great transition for the show; Vance herself became frustrated because her roles in sketches were limited both in visibility and in range - she was often cast in a skit as a secretary, a nurse, a waitress, a young unwed mother dependent on welfare (her recurring character, Cabrini Green Jackson, easily fell into this category), or a maid. This 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 (in the guise of 'Celia' from The Color Purple) who convinces him to force Oprah into performing stereotypically black roles by beating her (as Oprah's character 'Sofia' was in the movie), only to have Oprah strangle him in a headlock before shouting the show's opening line. In a short musical sketch on the same episode, Vance sang "I Play The Maids" (a spin on the Barry Manilow song, "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.
Perhaps adding to her frustration was her dyslexia which, according to an SNL Trivial Pursuit question and testimony from Al Franken for the book Live From New York: The Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, made it hard for her to read from cue cards and memorize lines (though it wasn't made apparent in most of her appearances).
Vance ultimately chose to leave SNL at the end of the season (along with many other cast members from that season who were fired, including Joan Cusack, Robert Downey, Jr., Randy Quaid, Terry Sweeney -- another homosexual cast member who was hired for the 1985-1986 cast — and Anthony Michael Hall).
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.
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, Ms. Jones Miller.
Past Know Your LGBT History posts: