A history major as a Harvard undergraduate, Vance began acting in college and joined Shakespeare and Company, a theater company in nearby Lenox, Massachusetts. He went on to further hone his thesping skills at the Yale School of Drama. While there, Vance originated the role of Cory, son of a formidable James Earl Jones, in the Yale Rep production of August Wilson's award-winning "Fences". In 1987, he made his Broadway debut reprising the role. Vance's performance garnered critical kudos, a Theatre World Award, and a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Play. His other stage credits have included playing Mercutio in the 1988 New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Romeo and Juliet"; Athol Fugard's "My Children! My Africa!" (1989) for which he won an OBIE Award; and a starring role in the Broadway production of John Guare's "Six Degrees of Situation", which brought Vance a second Tony nomination.
When "Six Degrees of Separation" came to the big screen as a 1993 feature, Stockard Channing reprised her role from Broadway but Vance could not even get a meeting to read for the role of the charismatic liar Paul, the self-proclaimed son of Sidney Poitier. Though he had already had significant experience in film and TV, the producers opted for a "name" actor--the better known if less trained rapper-cum-sitcom star Will Smith. Vance responded by developing another strategy for Hollywood success. He networked with fellow Harvard alumni in the industry to land meaty TV roles in high-minded cable movies like "The Tuskegee Airmen" and "The Affair" (both HBO, 1995) and "Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad" (Family Channel/Black Entertainment Television, 1994) and classy network specials like the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" (CBS, 1995) and Tom Griffin's "The Boys Next Door" (CBS, 1996). These projects displayed Vance's range as he variously played a lovestruck slave with aspirations to escape North ("Race to Freedom"); a sweet-natured dimwit ("The Piano Lesson"); an innocent black G.I. in love with a married white woman in WWII England ("The Affair"); and a severely mentally challenged man in a group home ("The Boys Next Door").
In features, Vance has successfully cultivated an image of dignity and restraint. He was the outspoken medic Doc in the war drama "Hamburger Hill" (1987) and a submarine sonar specialist in "The Hunt for Red October" (1990). Vance gained attention with his interpretation of the role of Jim in a Disney retelling of Mark Twain's classic "The Adventures of Huck Finn" (1993). He strayed from the outdated renditions of the Jims of old, creating a more intelligent figure and bringing weight and sadness to a man whose only desire is to be free. He also convinced as a subdued Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, in Mario and Melvin Van Peebles' "Panther" and a soft-spoken traditionalist high school principal in "Dangerous Minds" (both 1995). Vance held his own against glamorous headliners Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston as he played the frustrated minister in Penny Marshall's romantic comedy fantasy "The Preacher's Wife" (1996).