Karla Burns Dies: Tony-Nominated ‘Showboat’ Actress Who Broke Olivier Award Color Barrier Was 66

Karla Burns, an actress and singer whose acclaimed performance as Queenie in the musical Show Boat earned an Olivier Award and a Tony Award nomination, died June 4 in Wichita, Kansas, following a series of strokes. She was 66.

Her death was confirmed by her sister, Donna Burns-Revels, in a New York Times obituary.

In winning London’s Olivier Award in 1991, Burns became the first Black performer to do so.

Born, raised and educated in Wichita, Burns sang in church choirs growing up, later studying music and theater at Wichita State University. She soon won the role that would become her signature – Show Boat‘s Queenie – in regional productions, and in 1982 joined the Houston Grand Opera’s national tour of the Kern-Hammerstein classic.

She played the role on Broadway in 1983, scoring the Best Featured Actress Tony nomination. She reprised the role in London’s West End for a 1991 Royal Shakespeare Company production, winning the Olivier for Supporting Actress in a Musical.

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Burns also appeared on Broadway in 1987’s The Comedy of Errors, then performed in another production of the play in 1992 for New York’s Shakespeare in the Park opposite Marisa Tomei. In 1993, she was cast in another Park production, Measure for Measure, this time starring Kevin Kline.

Also in the 1990s Burns toured the country in the one-woman musical Hi-Hat Hattie, based on the life of Gone With The Wind actress Hattie McDaniel.

In 2007, Burns underwent an emergency thyroidectomy, and came out of the surgery unable to speak or sing. After years of intense vocal rehab, Burns returned to the stage in 2011 in a Wichita production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

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