Karla Burns, who earned an Olivier Award and a Tony nomination for her performance of Queenie in Show Boat, died on June 4 in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas after a series of strokes. Her death was confirmed to The New York Times by her sister, Donna Burns-Revels. She was 66.
Ms. Burns began her professional musical theatre career with the character that would become her signature role. After studying music and theatre at Wichita State University, she won the role of Queenie in the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II classic at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. She would go on to play the role at an Ohio dinner theatre before auditioning in New York City for the Houston Grand Opera touring production. That tour moved to Broadway in 1983, and Ms. Burns received a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress In A Musical for her performance.
In 1991, Ms. Burns reprised the role for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production in the West End, and made history by becoming the first Black performer to ever win an Olivier Award.
Also in the 1990s, Ms. Burns toured the U.S. in the solo musical Hi-Hat Hattie, playing Hattie McDaniel, the first Black actor to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in the film Gone With the Wind. Ms. Burns considered McDaniel a kindred spirit, as she was also a native of Wichita, Kansas, and had played the role of Queenie in the film version of Show Boat.
Other stage credits include The Comedy of Errors on Broadway in 1987, two New York Shakespeare Festival productions at Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera in 1989.
An emergency thyroidectomy in 2007 took her voice, but with intense therapy she slowly regained use of her vocal chords and in 2011 returned to the stage in Wichita as Pseudolus in a small production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.