February 24, 2024

When the actor and activist Vinie Burrows passed away on December 25, 2023, she was ninety-nine. In almost a century, Burrows had lived multiple lives. She was known as “one of the reigning divas of the Black theatre,” but also served as a representative at the United Nations, performed in solo shows, protested against war, and was seen as a muse of downtown theatre in her later years, being awarded with an Obie for Lifetime Achievement in 2020.

Tiny and radiant, Burrows had a voice that was rich and super-resonant, lending itself well to declamation. She was seen by many as a living embodiment of the Black oratorical tradition, her thrilling, kettledrum timbre being likened to that of Paul Robeson’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s.

Burrows was born in Harlem Hospital in 1924 and began performing in radio. She trained at the American Negro Theatre and appeared in her first Broadway role in 1950. Throughout her career, Burrows became frustrated with the parts being offered to her and made her own path. She created eight one-woman shows, and traveled all over the world, often reporting to the United Nations on behalf of the Women’s International Democratic Federation.

In her later years, Burrows had a resurgence in her career, becoming a downtown icon all over again. Despite her older age, she was selected for her youthful quality in various productions. Burrows continued to perform until her last days, always trying to bridge the gap between what she felt onstage and what she communicated to the audience.