Tony Award nominee leaves gap in local Kansas theater scene
When it came to lighting up a room, Karla Burns always shone brightly. This Wichita native traveled the world: singing, acting and making friends.
Burns, who died this past week, was nominated for a Tony Award for best actress in 1983 for her portrayal of Queenie in a revival of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's musical "Show Boat." In 1991, she won Britain's most prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for best supporting role for the same musical. She was the first Black performer to receive this honor.
The Wichita native also performed for the Metropol7603442002itan Opera, the Paris Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Burns, who was born on Christmas Eve 1954, graduated from Wichita West High School and Wichita State University.
"She and her sister, Donna (Burns-Redels), worked lovingly and tirelessly together in caring for family members," Pamaline King-Burns said, who is married to Burns' cousin the Rev. Ron Burns. "She was a very strong woman of faith and integrity."
When Burns was starting her career, she would rehearse her songs outside. According to her family, she would walk down Wabash Street "booming out rehearsal songs to the delight of neighbors."
Her sister would sit on the family's front porch, listening to her magnificent, mezzo-soprano voice.
When Burns performed at a large theatre in Los Angeles, several of her friends, including Ray Wills, traveled from Wichita to see her. Wills, who knew Burns for more than four decades, performed with her more than half a dozen times.
"We always had a great time working together," Wills said, who also performed on Broadway. "She told me to just play to express not to impress. I have always remembered that through the years."
Local actor Aaron Profit learned similar wisdom from Burns.
"She told me 'you should never act to entertain; act to interpret,'" Profit said. "If you interpret, it will fall into place."
A friend to all
"She knew how to make everyone feel special," Profit said. "Even though she had all these awards, she was humble."
Along with volunteering in the community with her sister, Burns brought the role of Hattie McDaniel, a fellow Kansas native, to life on stage. Although McDaniel, who was born in Wichita in 1893, was the first Black actress to win an Academy Award, she was not well known in her hometown.
Burns changed that when she performed in "Hi-Hat Hattie," a one-woman show about McDaniel. Embodying her character, Burns changed her costume more than one dozens times and brought audience members back to the turn of the last century.
"(Burns) was funny, magnetic, charismatic and totally unique," Kathy Haupton said, the producing artistic director at The Forum where Burns performed in many local shows. "She was an incredible and amazing performer."
Always known for having a smile on her face and notes to sing, Burns made others feel at like they were the only one in the room.
"She is our jewel of Kansas," Profit said. "She made people feel good about who they were and what they had."