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Karla Burns (1954–2021), Tony-nominated singer and actress

by Linnea Crowther

Karla Burns was a singer and actress who became the first Black person to win England’s prestigious Laurence Olivier Award, for her performance in “Show Boat.”

Musical theater career

Among Burns’ most notable roles was Queenie in “Show Boat,” in which she debuted in 1982 with the Houston Grand Opera. After premiering in Houston, the show traveled to venues including Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre and the London Palladium. Burns was nominated for a Tony Award and won her groundbreaking 1991 Olivier Award, as well as a Drama Desk Award, for her performance. She was also known for her performance in the one-woman show “Hi-Hat Hattie,” portraying Hattie McDaniel, the “Gone With the Wind” star who was the first Black actor to win an Oscar. Burns’ other notable stage productions included “The Comedy of Errors” and “Measure for Measure” for New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, Addie in the opera “Regina,” and Lily in “Porgy and Bess” for New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Burns on being compared to Hattie McDaniel

“I’ve noticed very much the similarities. I’m a round woman. That’s a struggle for me. 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, which is what made her so special. Because Hattie McDaniel, she took the lines – 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.” —from a 2018 interview for KMUW


Tributes to Karla Burns

Full obituary: The Wichita Eagle

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