Karla Burns, a singer and actor who in 1991 received a Laurence Olivier Award, Britain’s highest stage honor, for her function because the riverboat cook dinner Queenie in a manufacturing of “Show Boat,” and who later fought to regain her soulful voice after dropping it in an operation to take away a progress in her throat, died on June 4 in Wichita, Kan. She was 66.
Her sister, Donna Burns-Revels, mentioned the dying, in a hospital, was brought on by a sequence of strokes.
A spokeswoman for the Olivier Awards’ sponsoring group, the Society of London Theater, mentioned it’s believed that Ms. Burns was the primary Black performer to win that honor.
Her Olivier, Britain’s equal of a Tony, for greatest supporting efficiency in a musical, got here in 1991 in recognition of her work in a revival of “Show Boat,” co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company within the West End. Almost a decade earlier she had earned a Tony nomination for enjoying Queenie function on Broadway.
Ms. Burns’s musical journey started when she was a lady rising up in Wichita within the Sixties. Her father was a blues and gospel pianist, and each Saturday evening she danced beside his piano whereas he performed. On bus rides to high school she broke out in music. One day a choir trainer instructed her, “Kiddo, you can really sing.”
After finding out music and theater at Wichita State University, Ms. Burns auditioned for the function of Queenie in a regional manufacturing of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 musical “Show Boat,” in regards to the lives of the performers and crew aboard a floating theater referred to as the Cotton Blossom that travels alongside the Mississippi River within the segregated South.
Ms. Burns landed the function and was quickly taking the stage at the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City. Then she carried out as Queenie in an Ohio dinner theater production, belting out “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” nightly. In the early Nineteen Eighties, she headed to New York to audition for the half for a nationwide tour of “Show Boat” offered by the Houston Grand Opera. She competed for the function towards a whole lot of different girls.
“I had no agent and I walked in,” Ms. Burns mentioned in an interview on the “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1982. “Some of them, I 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 requested to sing 16 bars of 1 music, after which the audition ended. After weeks of silence, somebody referred to as to apologize for dropping her cellphone quantity. The half was hers, she was instructed.
The musical, which starred Donald O’Connor and Lonette McKee, toured the nation for months and arrived on Broadway in 1983.
“There is standout work by Karla Burns,” Frank Rich wrote in his review in The New York Times. “Miss Burns has been handed a sizzling, rarely heard song, ‘Hey, Feller,’ that’s been restored to ‘Show Boat’ for this production.”
“Karla was proud to play Queenie,” mentioned Rick Bumgardner, a shut pal of hers who directed her in productions of “The Wiz” and ‘Steel Magnolias.” “When she got the opportunity to put a rag on her head, she didn’t feel she was putting people down. She felt she was portraying strong women and reminding our nation of its past.”
In the Nineties, Ms. Burns appeared in “Hi-Hat Hattie,” a touring one-woman musical based mostly on the lifetime of Hattie McDaniel, the primary African-American actor to win an Oscar, for her function as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). Ms. McDaniel was additionally a Wichita native and had played Queenie within the 1936 film model of “Show Boat,” and Ms. Burns had lengthy considered her a kindred spirit.
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“I’ve noticed very much the similarities,” she mentioned in an interview on the general public radio station KMUW Wichita in 2018. “I’ve noticed that people do often look at your color, your size, and it makes a difference as to what roles you get. McDaniel had the same struggles at a time when people looked at every bit of you and you were blessed to get a part.”
She added: “She’d take the words, and because she knew how to sass them up, she didn’t serve anybody. She played a subservient role, but she was never a subservient human being.”
In different stage productions Ms. Burns’s drew discover for enjoying Bloody Mary, who trades with American sailors within the musical “South Pacific,” and Maria, the matriarch of Catfish Row, in “Porgy and Bess.” In 1989, she was forged in a manufacturing of “Porgy and Bess” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a 12 months after she had appeared in Marc Blitzstein’s 1949 opera “Regina” at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn.
Ms. Burns went on to carry out with Marisa Tomei in “The Comedy of Errors” in 1992 and with Kevin Kline the subsequent 12 months in “Measure for Measure,” each at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as a part of the New York Shakespeare Festival.
By the time she was in her 50s, Ms. Burns had change into the pleasure of Wichita, and in December 2013 the mayor proclaimed the celebration of Karla Burns Week.
In Wichita, she taught non-public voice classes on an previous cherry wooden piano that was mentioned to have been performed by Duke Ellington, and she or he stored her Olivier award statue in her lounge.
Ms. Burns experienced bother inhaling about 2007 and went to see a physician. An X-ray revealed that a practically 10-pound goiter was rising in her neck, and she or he was instructed she wanted an emergency thyroidectomy. A number of days earlier than the operation, her windpipe collapsed and she or he briefly flatlined. When Ms. Burns awoke after the surgical procedure, she realized that she may by no means converse once more, not to mention sing.
To talk, she scribbled messages on paper. Gradually she mustered a whisper and shortly started working with a speech therapist to discover ways to use her voice once more. A 12 months later, she sang her first few notes.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me, I don’t know why it’s happening,” she mentioned in a native tv interview. “But I know that if I don’t try, if I don’t put my foot forward, I’m never going to do it again.”
Karla Arnetta Burns was born in Wichita on Dec. 24, 1954. Her father, Willie, died when she was 7. Her mom, Catherine (Scott) Burns, was a seamstress. She attended Wichita West High School and graduated from Wichita State University in 1981.
Her sister is her solely instant survivor.
In 2011, Mr. Burns was able to carry out once more. She made her comeback in Wichita in a small theater manufacturing of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” within the main function (normally performed by a man) of Pseudolus. The present bought out, and on opening evening her followers waited eagerly to see her.
Ms. Burns lastly took the stage, and a mighty voice emerged.