Wichita woman bringing ‘Hattie’ back to life

World-famous Wichitan reprises role as another world-famous Wichitan

Written by Amy Palser

Karla Burns, Olivier Award-winning actress and singer, will be playing Hattie McDaniel of “Gone with the Wind” fame in the one-woman show “Hi-Hat Hattie.”

McDaniel, who died in 1952, is most famous for her role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” for which she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress — the first Oscar won by a black entertainer. Appearing in over 300 films, McDaniel was known for wearing large feathered high hats. Audiences will get glimpses into McDaniel’s life, from her humble beginnings as a child in Wichita, to her great success, to her decline and subsequent death at age 57.

Burns, 63, has played the iconic character on and off since Sarasota, Fla., playwright Larry Parr wrote “Hi-Hat Hattie” in 1998.

“When I was a kid I loved Hattie McDaniel,” Parr said. “I thought she was so funny. She could make me laugh and she could make me cry — and she sang. Then in the ‘60s I learned I was not supposed to like her because people said she betrayed her race by perpetuating stereotypes. So I wanted to show the world there was more to Hattie than the one thing they were thinking about her.”

It was while watching a documentary about the musical “Show Boat” that Parr discovered Burns for the part of Hattie. Burns portrayed Queenie in “Show Boat” on Broadway and stages in London, Paris and around the world (not coincidentally, McDaniel played Queenie in the 1936 film “Show Boat”).

“Suddenly there was Karla Burns’ face on the screen,” Parr said. “And I thought to myself, ‘That’s Hattie McDaniel.’ ”

Parr knew that Burns and McDaniel were similar in talent and appearance, but only after Burns had been selected for the part did the playwright learn the two women grew up only 10 blocks apart in Wichita (though McDaniel died two years before Burns was born).

Kansas City director Rick Bumgardner, who is directing the upcoming Wichita show, said Burns isn’t the only perfect fit for the musical; the venue is a match made in heaven, too. The intimate Roxy’s Downtown suits both the era and circumstances of McDaniel’s life.

“The Roxy was a speakeasy; you get in through the back door in the alley,” he said. “Hattie sang in speakeasies, so the venue is perfect, perfect, perfect for this.”

Bumgardner directed Burns in “Hi-Hat Hattie” in 2001, and he’s excited to collaborate with her again 17 years later. “I’m anxious to see how she’s aged, the different wisdom she’ll bring to the role that she — that we — may not have had at that point,” Bumgardner said.

She last reprised the role in 2006 for the release of the Hattie McDaniel stamp. Though the show is very familiar to her, Burns said it feels fresh and new every time.

“It’s me bringing to life someone I believe is right to be who she was, when she was, and I’m dedicated to that — making the character come to life,” she said.

Burns sings 14 songs in the show, accompanied by pianist Huron Breaux, who will also be on stage.

“The songs are very definitely in Karla’s wheelhouse,” Bumgardner said. “When you get to hear her sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Can’t Help Loving That Man’ and ‘Danny Boy’ — it’s one of those things that you can’t help but be moved as an audience member.”

The show runs April 13–15 and 20–22 at Roxy’s Downtown, 412 ½ E. Douglas.

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