Karla Burns, Who Broke a ‘British Tonys’ Shade Barrier, Dies at 66

Karla Burns, a singer and actress who won the 1991 Laurence Olivier Award, Britain’s highest stage honor, for her role as riverboat cook Queenie in a production of Show Boat, who later struggled to regain her soulful voice after losing it died during surgery to remove a growth in his throat on June 4th in Wichita, Kan. She was 66 years old.

Her sister, Donna Burns-Revels, said the hospital death was due to a series of strokes.

A spokeswoman for the Olivier Awards sponsoring organization, the Society of London Theater, said it believed Ms. Burns was the first black actress to receive the honor.

Her Olivier, the British equivalent of Tony, for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical, was awarded in 1991 in recognition of her work in a revival of Show Boat, co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the West End. Almost a decade earlier, she had received a Tony nomination for her role as Queenie on Broadway.

Ms. Burns’ musical journey began while she was growing up in Wichita in the 1960s. Her father was a blues and gospel pianist, and every Saturday night she danced next to his piano while he played. She burst into songs on bus trips to school. One day a choir teacher said to her: “Kiddo, you can really sing.”

After studying music and theater at Wichita State University, Ms. Burns auditioned for the role of Queenie in a regional production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 musical Show Boat, which is about the lives of the actors and actresses the crew aboard a floating theater called. goes the Cotton Blossom that flows along the Mississippi River in the isolated south.

Ms. Burns got the role and soon took the stage at the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City. Then she appeared as Queenie in a dinner theater production in Ohio, chanting “Can’t Help Lovin ‘Dat Man” every night. In the early 1980s she traveled to New York to audition for the role on a national tour of Show Boat for the Houston Grand Opera. She competed for the role against hundreds of other women.

“I didn’t have an agent and got in,” Ms. Burns said in a 1982 interview on The Merv Griffin Show. “Some of them knew their faces, I knew they were famous women, and I said, ‘Well, I’m here and I’m from Kansas and I’m going to go out there and do my best.'”

She was asked to sing 16 bars of a song, and then the audition ended. After weeks of silence, someone called to apologize for the loss of her phone number. The part was hers, she was told.

The musical with Donald O’Connor and Lonette McKee toured the country for months and hit Broadway in 1983.

“There is outstanding work by Karla Burns,” wrote Frank Rich in his review in the New York Times. “Miss Burns was presented with a sizzling, rarely heard song ‘Hey, Feller’ which was restored for this production in ‘Show Boat’.”

For her performance, she was nominated for a Tony Award and won a Drama Desk Award. She later sang on a studio album, “Show Boat,” which was released in 1988.

“Karla was proud to play Queenie,” said Rick Bumgardner, a close friend of hers who directed her on the productions of “The Wiz” and “Steel Magnolias”. “When she got the chance to put a rag on her head, she didn’t feel like she was putting people down. She felt like portraying strong women and reminding our nation of its past. “

In the 1990s, Ms. Burns appeared in Hi-Hat Hattie, a touring one-woman musical based on the life of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American actress to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone Withone won the wind ”(1939). Ms. McDaniel, also from Wichita, had played Queenie in the 1936 film version of Show Boat, and Ms. Burns had long considered her a kindred spirit.

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“I noticed the similarities very much,” she said in a 2018 interview with the public radio broadcaster KMUW Wichita. “I’ve noticed that people often look at your color, your height, and it makes a difference which roles you get. McDaniel had the same problems at a time when people were looking at every part of you and you were blessed to get a part. “

She added, “She would take the words and because she knew how to screw them up, she didn’t serve anyone. She played a submissive role, but she was never a submissive person. “

In other stage productions, Ms. Burns attracted attention for playing Bloody Mary, who deals with American sailors in the musical “South Pacific”, and Maria, the matriarch of Catfish Row, in “Porgy and Bess”. She was cast in a 1989 production of Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, one year after she appeared in Marc Blitzstein’s 1949 opera Regina at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn.

Ms. Burns appeared with Marisa Tomei in The Comedy of Errors in 1992 and the next year with Kevin Kline in Measure for Measure, both at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival.

When she was over 50, Ms. Burns was the pride of Wichita, and in December 2013 the Mayor proclaimed Karla Burns Week.

In Wichita, she gave private singing lessons on an old cherry wood piano allegedly played by Duke Ellington, and she kept her Olivier Award statue in her living room.

Ms. Burns had difficulty breathing in 2007 and went to see a doctor. An x-ray showed that a nearly 10 pound goiter was growing in her neck and she was told she needed an emergency thyroidectomy. A few days before the operation, her windpipe collapsed and she briefly lay flat. When Ms. Burns woke up after the operation, she learned that she might never speak again, let alone sing.

To communicate, she scribbled messages on paper. Gradually she brought up a whisper and soon began working with a speech therapist to learn how to use her voice again. A year later she sang her first notes.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me, I don’t know why it’s happening,” she said in a local television interview. “But I know that if I don’t try, if I don’t step forward, I’ll never do it again.”

Karla Arnetta Burns was born in Wichita on December 24, 1954. Her father Willie died when she was 7 years old. Her mother Catherine (Scott) Burns was a seamstress. She attended Wichita West High School and graduated from Wichita State University in 1981.

Her sister is her only immediate survivor.

In 2011, Mr. Burns was ready to perform again. She celebrated her comeback in Wichita in a small theater production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in the lead role (mostly played by a man) of Pseudolus. The show was sold out and on the opening night, fans were eagerly waiting to see it.

Finally Ms. Burns took the stage and a powerful voice rang out.