By Bonita Gooch, The Community Voice
“They say your gift will make room for you, so my gift has made room for me to do this and I’m grateful,” said Burns during her keynote speech to the fall2016 Wichita State University graduates.
Karla Burns gifts took her around the world many times over as she performed on stages with her gifts of song, dance and acting. She was a triple threat, Burns would often say. That’s a performer whose talent isn’t limited to just one skill.
Burns, an operatic mezzo-soprano certainly had the chops. She was also a talented actress, with enough talent to earn a Tony Award nomination for her performance as Queenie in the 1983 Broadway revival of Show Boat. While she didn’t win the Tony, she did win an Olivier Award – the British comparable to a Tony – for that same performance during the shows runs in London.
Even though Burns wasn’t a lightweight, she was light on her feet; quick to deliver a laid-back old, soft shoe or a roaring shimmy – what ever the role required.
That triple threat talent was developed on the stages of Wichita West High School where her love for performing began. She went on to further develop her skills in the Fine Arts Department at Wichita State University and as a regular on the stage of Wichita Community Theater, where her light really began to shine bright.
After college, she moved to New York City where she nabbed a long list of roles in a variety of productions. Her talent also helped her book jobs around the world.
One of Burn’s personal favorite performances was her one-woman show “High Hat Hattie,” a portrayal of another Wichita native who went on to become a star — Hattie McDaniel. In 1939, McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award when she received the Best Supporting Actress Aaward for her role as Mammy in the movie “Gone With the Wind.”
Burns’ life in a way emulated McDaniel’s. Burns was the first Black person, African-American or otherwise, to receive and Olivier Award.
In 2007, Burns had a medical scare that led to the removal of an almost 10-pound goiter from her neck. Her vocal cords where greatly affected and her singing voice rendered unusable. She worked hard to revive her singing skills while she continued to enrich the theatrical culture in Wichita by working with young people.
During her career she has performed on stage at every major theatre in Wichita. She’s been a recent favorite at Roxy’s in downtown Wichita and also performed in several productions for the Forum Theater.
Her outstanding performances have led to features in national and international publications including, Time, People, and Newsweek magazines, and The London Times.
Among her many recognitions, Burns also received the Kansas Governor’s Arts Award in 2000 for her individual achievement in the arts. She’s been installed in the WSU Hall of Fame and in 2016, when she delivered the commencement speech at WSU, she was recognized with an honorary doctorate degree.
Burns died peacefully this week after an extended illness. She was 66.