Karla Burns, Olivier/Drama Desk Award Winner, Passes Away At 66

Karla Burns (image via Facebook)
Karla Burns (image via Facebook)

Forty years ago this week I was performing in my first professional theater gig in Show Boat at Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City. At 17, I’m pretty sure i was the youngest in the resident ensemble.

For new readers, before I became a journalist I spent nearly 40 years working in the theater on Broadway and across the country in shows like Hello, Dolly!, Chicago, A Chorus Line and more.

While most of those first weeks are a blur in my now-formerly blond head, I’ve never forgotten the joyful, effervescent Karla Burns who brought the role of Queenie to life as a musical force of nature.

She tucked that experience under her arm, went to NYC and booked the role of Queenie in a national touring company of Show Boat in 1982. In 1983, the show landed on Broadway and Karla was honored with a Tony Award nomination for her richly layered performance.

And in 1991, she became the first (!!!) Black woman to win an Olivier Award for her Queenie in the West End production of Show Boat.

Over the years, I would run into Karla and she always remembered me, always laughed with me, always had that big, gorgeous smile.

This morning I saw in the New York Times she passed away at the age of 66 on June 4. The memory of her joyful, larger-than-life talent makes me smile as I can hear her voice and her laugh in my head even now.

I think it says something that an artist I worked with 40 years ago continues to live in a warm, wonderful, and happy corner of my mind.

It’s important to add that Karla appeared in many, many fantastic roles over the years. She was not a ‘one-hit wonder.’ But the NY Times tells it much better than I.

Rest in glory Karla Burns. ❤