The seismic shifts rocking the country sparked by the brutal murder of a black man, George Floyd, by a white
Minnesota cop was a tipping point in the collective consciousness having witnessed a cascade of deaths/injustices/cagings suffered by BIPOC. It ignited a chain reaction of righteous passion, rebel truth and a willingness-to-fight for what is humane, fair and just.
People from of all walks of life were called to bear witness by marching and chanting “No Justice No Peace,” kneeling and raising a fist in solidarity, while others lay face-down on streets/highways/bridges with hands symbolically cuffed behind backs as they silently enacted the 9 minutes George Floyd was pinned to the asphalt with a police officer’s knee and full body weight crushing his neck until he died.
Peaceful D.C. protestors were teargassed, pepper sprayed, and shot with rubber bullets so a path could be cleared for the so-called president to walk to a church he never attends to hold a bible upside down to signal his divine power ... these events has made writing this week’s “Women Write Funny” blog seem meaningless at best.
But I kept asking myself, does anything of what’s happening this week relate in some way to Women Write Funny? Is there a rebel funny woman, past or present, whose work somehow challenged and upended the status quo, a funny woman before her time who suffered/faced racism yet continued to create/write/perform? Her defiance and humor a thread in the tapestry of today?
And then I remembered.
I remembered Danitra Vance.
An amazingly gifted gay black female comedienne and playwright who, had she not died of breast cancer at the age of 40, might have marched at the fore as a voice and presence at the past weekend’s marches in D.C., Philly or in her hometown of Chicago.
Background: A Chicago native Danitra graduated with honors from Roosevelt University with degrees in playwriting and acting, and went on to London where she studied classical theater, receiving an MFA for her Shakespeare studies and classical acting training from the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Back in Chicago she launched her career writing/performing stand up in Chicago bars and performing with the famed improv troupe Second City.
When I met Danitra more than a few years later she was a NYC downtown and uptown theater celeb having performed her critically acclaimed Off-Broadway one-woman show: “Danitra Vance and the Mell-o White Boys.” The brilliance of her performances catapulted her into the upper echelon of comedy fame: she was hired by NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) becoming the first Black gay (although her sexuality was not spoken of at the time) female to be a member of the cast of SNL comedians.
Disclaimer: My connection with Danitra Vance was brief. I lay no claim to her friendship, soul or genius and write only to remember her and be grateful I crossed paths with her radical Puck-like spirit.
Who was she?
She was fierce, funny, fleet of mind and foot.
Slim as a sunflower stalk, her face as radiant as its flower.
She was funny as f—k.
Danitra Vance was a comedic chameleon, creating her own characters, making the stage into her world, owning her gift with the ease of a jazz musician.
She was a star who could take it or leave it, and whatever she created, embodied and performed was on her terms, in her words or in the words of someone like Nora Zeal Hurston ("Spunk”) with whom she shared an artistic sensibility and admired.
She was no-body’s fool least of all the white male-writers on Saturday Night Life whose too-often-racist (then euphemistically called “stereotypical”) characters they sometimes/often wrote for her no doubt must have tried her soul. She herself told me she got tired of being type-cast by SNL writers/producer and being given secondary female roles to play like maids, nurses, and Miss Prissy, Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in a send-up sketch of Gone With the Wind.
She performed a spoof the TV sitcom in “That Black Girl” and impersonated Leslie Uggams and Cicely Tyson. In another comic (?) sketch she was cast as producer Lorne Michaels’ personal maid.
I often wonder if the final straw was when she was asked to open SNL singing parody lyrics to Barry Manilow’s song: “I Write The Songs” called “I Play The Maids” allegedly to protest her being stereotyped as playing maids. JFC. Her heart must have raged as she pulled off that twisted stunt.
No surprise this captivating comedic playwright whose one-woman revue was on par with Lily Tomlin’s multi-character one-woman Broadway comedy show, would depart SNL after only one year, walking away from the ultimate career cherry for any comedienne so she could branch out, again, on her own, to create/write/perform the plays/revues she was DNA’ed to create and offer the world.
Vance trusted she would survive professionally by aligning with her own voice/vision and with the voices/visions of fellow professional writers and theater professionals like playwright, artistic director of Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and five-time Tony winner George C. Wolfe with whom she performed and was directed by in two acclaimed plays: “Spunk” and “The Coloured Museum.”
She went on to perform as an actress in film, TV, off-Broadway and in regional theater. She continued to thrive post-SNL just as she had pre-SNL by writing and performing her own work.
At the time we met, I was the co-founder and co-artistic director of a experimental downtown theater in the East Village called Limbo Theater. My partner and I created a Equity-approved under 99-seat theater (putting the platforms and seats up every night ourselves and taking them down after each performance since the space, a former mafia garage for a fleet of garbage trucks (still rented from the mob but that’s another story) was shared with and had been transformed into the Limbo Gallery by Michael Gormley and his partners. Six nights a week my partner and I set up and broke down the spacious open gallery into a working theater. We presented/produced 40-50 original new shows a year.
It was an insane time of youth/boundless energy, kinetic dreams and incredibly limited funds but the theater was built working in tandem with generous, gifted and hard-working fellow performing artists. Limbo Theater was located in the East Village on 9th St. between avenues B (Battery) and C (Concussion) in the final burnout days of the East Village. We were on the cusp of the transition, before the arrival and encroachment of condos, coke-addled day traders and trust fund hipsters who moved into the EV by the thousands transforming a street drug circus with a hard-core urban vibe into a trendy zoo with side-walk cafes offering watering bowls for drug-dealers’ pit-bulls and cappuccinos for black-clad white nouveau hipsters. (A few years later a movie producer named Jim Stark offered a small amount of start-up money to start our own theater somewhere else ... we moved to Tribeca and with a team of other performing artists we and transformed with sweat labor a former textile cast-iron storefront into a new theater and gallery HOME for Contemporary Theater and Art. Another story!)
Back to Limbo (which you never get out of anyway, rite?) The Limbo gallery was a recognized venue for visual artists and in a short time the theater became a go-to place for audiences and young downtown writers, performers, dancers, comics, playwrights, directors, poets, performance artists.. Hopefuls who performed frequently included then unknown Steve Buscemi who was a fireman by day and at night performed as part of a comedy duo (“Steve and Mark”) with his then writing partner Mark Boone. Notable performances included Reno the lesbian comedienne who performed her latest unscripted rants and raves without rehearsing, the highly-prepared brilliant playwright-director John Jesserun, performance artist/writer David Cale, Jeff Weiss, and many others.
Danitra Vance came in one day, having been introduced by someone to talk about performing and I got out the production calendar and invited her to perform whatever she wanted. At that point she was famous as a SNL alum, and had received awards/accolades for her one-woman off-Broadway revue: “Danitra Vance and the Mell-o White Boys.” She sold out most performances over the two weeks she performed a revue of comic sketche featuring characters she was known for, and adding new ones. She created/performed an amazing one-woman comic revue/show with audiences cheering her every night. Like everywhere she went and/or performed, she was a star at Limbo radiating talent and charisma.
We met for coffee and lunch a few days after her show closed. After we walked around the Village continuing to share lives. Standing on Lafayette, before she was about to get on the uptown 6 at Astor Place, I remember saying goodbye as she reached into her bag and handed me a bouquet of colorful flowers wrapped in purple tissue.
I was speechless not only because she was beautiful and talented and I felt a kinship with her spirit, but because no performer who’d worked at the theater had ever given me flowers, let alone been so present expressing their appreciation.
If I’d been more present myself at that moment, not distracted thinking about how I had to get back to the theater to get it ready for the show opening that night or a tech rehearsal about to begin, I'd have asked her to meet me again for lunch or dinner. Instead we hugged and I thanked her, saying the obvious: she was welcome to perform at the theater doing anything/anytime, assuming our paths would cross again and we’d pick up from there.
I watched her disappear into the subway and never saw her again.
She faced breast cancer as an artist spinning inquiry and self-discovery into humor/performance/truth. I read online that while undergoing treatment, she began writing what she imagined would be her next one-woman play: “The Radical Girl’s Guide to Radical Mastectomy.”
Just before death, true to her inner trickster, Shakespeare’s comic rebel Puck, she requested her family host her services at an amusement park.
I imagine her final draft read something like this:
Exit Stage Left: Laughing.
Update: Almost 30 years after Danitra Vance was cast as the first African American female cast member of SNL, a Variety headline read: ‘SNL’ Adds Two African-American Female Writers In Wake Of Diversity Scrutiny.”
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