Karla Burns, a singer and actor who in 1991 received a Laurence Olivier Award, Britain’s highest stage honor, for her position because the riverboat prepare 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 four in Wichita, Kan. She was 66.
Her sister, Donna Burns-Revels, stated the demise, in a hospital, was brought on by a sequence of strokes.
A spokeswoman for the Olivier Awards’ sponsoring group, the Society of London Theater, stated 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 taking part in Queenie position on Broadway.
Ms. Burns’s musical journey started when she was a lady rising up in Wichita within the 1960s. Her father was a blues and gospel pianist, and each Saturday evening she danced beside his piano whereas he performed. On bus rides to highschool she broke out in tune. One day a choir trainer advised her, “Kiddo, you can really sing.”
After finding out music and theater at Wichita State University, Ms. Burns auditioned for the position of Queenie in a regional manufacturing of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 musical “Show Boat,” about the lives of the performers and crew aboard a floating theater called the Cotton Blossom that travels along the Mississippi River in the segregated South.
Ms. Burns landed the role and was soon taking the stage at the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City. Then she performed as Queenie in an Ohio dinner theater production, belting out “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” nightly. In the early 1980s, she headed to New York to audition for the part for a national tour of “Show Boat” presented by the Houston Grand Opera. She competed for the role against hundreds of other women.
“I had no agent and I walked in,” Ms. Burns said 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 asked to sing 16 bars of one song, and then the audition ended. After weeks of silence, someone called to apologize for losing her phone number. The part was hers, she was told.
The musical, which starred Donald O’Connor and Lonette McKee, toured the country 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.”
She was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance and won a Drama Desk Award. She later sang on a “Show Boat” studio album, released in 1988.
“Karla was proud to play Queenie,” said Rick Bumgardner, a close friend 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 1990s, Ms. Burns appeared in “Hi-Hat Hattie,” a touring one-woman musical based on the life of Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actor to win an Oscar, for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). Ms. McDaniel was also a Wichita native and had played Queenie in the 1936 movie version of “Show Boat,” and Ms. Burns had long considered her a kindred spirit.
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“I’ve noticed very much the similarities,” she said in an interview on the 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 other stage productions Ms. Burns drew notice for playing Bloody Mary, who trades with American sailors in the musical “South Pacific,” and Maria, the matriarch of Catfish Row, in “Porgy and Bess.” In 1989, she was cast in a production of “Porgy and Bess” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a year 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 perform with Marisa Tomei in “The Comedy of Errors” in 1992 and with Kevin Kline the next year in “Measure for Measure,” both at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival.
By the time she was in her 50s, Ms. Burns had become the pride of Wichita, and in December 2013 the mayor proclaimed the celebration of Karla Burns Week.
In Wichita, she taught private voice lessons on an old cherry wood piano that was said to have been played by Duke Ellington, and she kept her Olivier award statue in her living room.
Ms. Burns experienced trouble breathing in about 2007 and went to see a doctor. An X-ray revealed 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 flatlined. When Ms. Burns woke up after the surgery, she learned that she might never speak again, let alone sing.
To communicate, she scribbled messages on paper. Gradually she mustered 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 few 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 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 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 made 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 leading role (usually played by a man) of Pseudolus. The show sold out, and on opening night her fans waited eagerly to see her.
Ms. Burns finally took the stage, and a mighty voice emerged.