UB’s Dreams Affirmed club sold Karen Burthwright with just five words: “Black musical theatre student group.”
Despite being a booked and busy Broadway actress known for her role in the original Broadway cast of “Paradise Square,” Burthwright carved out the time to join Dreams Affirmed for an impromptu meeting at Alumni Arena last month.
As a swing and understudy for both Tina and Ronda in the national tour of “Tina,” Burthwright’s path brought her to Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo. Once she was in the Queen City, the opportunity to enlighten and empower other performers of color was too good to pass up.
Burthwright felt both a sense of connection to Tina Turner and immense pressure when she auditioned for “Tina” back in May — her first in-person audition since before COVID-19. .
“We have all experienced [issues] and still have to show up and deliver a three and a half minute monologue, kick your face and belt a high ‘C,’” Burthwright said. “I was going into another audition that fed me in a completely different way, especially as a Black woman, dancing a show and singing or reading material about an actual Black woman’s storied life was very therapeutic for me.”
Originally, Burthwright did not book “Tina.” But when a cast member dropped out of the production, Burthwright seized the second-chance opportunity and got the role.
“My jaw dropped and hit the floor and bruised my entire chin, I came out of some type of comatose shock,” Burthwright said.
The role was hers, but Burthwright was stuck playing catch-up. All her co-stars had six weeks of rehearsals under their belts by the time she got the role. As the self-proclaimed “new kid on the block,” she practiced choreography in theater lobbies and learned much of her music from Dropbox recordings instead of a director.
“I understand the value of a swing. They are usually among the smartest people in the room. They are the reason why the show can continue and be supported,” Burthwright said. “They are not to be slept on or misunderstood or overlooked or treated as other or less than. They are the glue that keeps your company together, that keeps your cast together.”
Catching up was no cake walk. Burthwright said she would’ve loved to have gone home to a cozy book, an epsom salt bath or a walk in the park after a rehearsal. But the rigor of her role makes those simple joys difficult to pencil into her daily routine — and that’s before accounting for the constant travel.
It is not in her “earthly Capricorn way” to wake up in a new hotel room in a new city every morning. Even worse, some of Burthwright’s hotels have housed more than just Broadway-level actors.
“Sometimes [the hotels] are haunted, which is not my jam. So that’s gross,” Burthwright said jokingly. “Absolutely not! Stay away from me! I rebuke you in the name!”
Burthwright reminded the Dreams Affirmed students to always “fill their cups,” whether that be with their passion for their craft, the joy of performing, self-love or having to skip out on going out to the bar when there’s a show the next day.
She also reflected on her experiences playing Shug Avery across from Tara Jackson’s Celie in the “Color Purple” at the Neptune Theatre. Jackson leaned into her character, a victim of sexual, parental and domestic abuse, night after night, sometimes taking an emotional toll.
Once Jackson finished the show’s 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here,” she exited stage right after her bow, completely drained and depleted after reliving a fellow Black woman’s entire lifetime story of horrific abuse and trauma. Sometimes, the exhaustion would be too much for Jackson to handle on her own. Her castmates embraced her, surrounding her, covering her with energy and support offstage when the role’s burden became too much for one actress to carry alone.
“You have to realize that you need to temper how your energy exchange happens with people and situations throughout your career. It is very difficult. There is a cost,” Burthwright said. “It’s trying. It’s pushing you. You’re exhausted. But somehow you’re doing what you’ve always dreamed. So you get a little bit of that cup refilled by doing exactly that. The thing that's actually draining you is also feeding you.”
Burthwright offered both sage advice and compassionate warnings to Dreams Affirmed’s prospective actors, dancers and singers.
“The path is going to be rocky. It’s going to be hilly,” Burthwright said. “There’s going to be a bridge that’s very sketchy that you might have to walk or sashay across from time to time with about four overweight pieces of luggage, your book and your LaDucas in your hand. Don’t be naive to think you’re actually not having to work harder because of who you are for less roles or less tracks in a show.”
Although Burthwright soon had to run back to Shea’s to prepare for the upcoming showings of “Tina,” the hour she spent with Dreams Affirmed gave club members new insight on their futures in what can be a simultaneously rewarding and crushing industry.
“As a Black man, I’ve never had a mentor who filled my cup and made me feel like I’m in the right space,” Rahim Dunston, a junior theatre performance major, said. “I’m very, very thankful. I’m very happy to have had this moment. And she just told me, ‘Things don’t happen on accident, everything in the universe is great.’”
Nothing about Burthwright’s star-studded Broadway and performing career was accidental. Her career — and those of her successors — is forged through constant work, perseverance and fighting for the right to exist and thrive in a space that is not always inclusive to diverse identities.
Burthwright, by walking the rickety bridge with her book, LaDucas and the burdens of her entire community in hand, earned her flowers. She hopes that the next generation, including the students in Dreams Affirmed, will come to that familiar bridge, have the courage to cross it and pick up paving a path forward in the spot where she left off.
Alex Novak is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Alex Novak is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.