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Black theatre great Vinie Burrows on her latest role and her life's work
Vinie Burrows made her Broadway debut in 1950 and has been working on stage ever since. Yet incredibly, the 95-year-old actress has never had an agent. "For the last Off-Broadway productions I've done, people have called me," she says, citing her roles in 2019's Mies Julie at Classic Stage Company, 2018's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at New York Theatre Workshop and A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park in 2017. While she suspects that if she had representation, she might "have a larger pool of material to choose from," she's pragmatic. "It is as it is; that's the way the system works. I've worked enough for some people in the system to know my work and want to use me."
The latest one to call is the Mint Theater Company, which cast her in Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories, currently running at Theatre Row. The production is a pair of stage adaptations of stories by the Russian literary giants: Chekhov's An Artist's Story and Tolstoy's What Men Live By. Burrows appears in the latter, rechristened Michael, about a peasant family that encounters a mysterious stranger who changes their lives. Burrows plays "the elder in the house… almost in her dotage, but still useful even though she's a little doddering."
Burrows said yes to the role immediately not just because she enjoys working, but because she's also a longtime fan of Tolstoy's oeuvre. "One of the first books I ever read was Tolstoy's Resurrection, and I was deeply moved by it," she recalls, noting his "spirituality and love of humanity." The author was a fervent Christian, and God and angels play parts in Michael. Yet Burrows believes the one-act's message transcends faith. "I think people are forced to think about who we are as a species and what motivates us," she says.
Born in Harlem in 1924 (her birth year is often misreported as 1928), Burrows started out as a child actress on the radio. Her big break came in her twenties, when she landed her first Broadway show: The Wisteria Trees, Joshua Logan's adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard set on a Louisiana plantation post-slavery. The legendary Helen Hayes and an up-and-comer named Ossie Davis were also in the cast.
"I was very lucky," says Burrows. "In the beginning of my career, I worked with some very good people." That's quite the understatement. Her Broadway costars included Eartha Kitt (in 1954's Mrs. Patterson) and Mary Martin (in the 1955 revival of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth), and in the early '60s, she appeared in the U.S. premiere of Jean Genet's groundbreaking The Blacks, which helped launch the likes of James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett Jr. and Roscoe Lee Browne. "I learned a lot from just watching them on the stage every night," she says.
Yet despite working steadily, Burrows was dissatisfied with the roles she was being offered as an African American actress. This was years before troupes such as the Negro Ensemble Company and the National Black Theatre were founded, and opportunities for actors of color in the '50s and early '60s were limited. So Burrows decided to forge her own path, devising her own solo shows (Walk Together Children chronicling the African-American experience; Africa Fire!, a collection of African folktales; Sister! Sister! about the worldwide struggles of women; Black on Broadway, a bio play about Rose McClendon), which she performed across the U.S., everywhere from a women's prison to college campuses, as well as throughout Europe. "They took me to four continents," says Burrows, giving her "the opportunity to see other places, other people."
In addition to her acting, she also became an activist. She's been involved with the Women's International Democratic Federation for decades, and she's been part of the Granny Peace Brigade since its very first demonstration 15 years ago. "We were protesting the war in Iraq, and we were arrested because we tried to enlist at the Army recruiting center at Times Square and refused to leave," Burrows recalls. "So they handcuffed us and took us to jail. We didn't spend the night, but we spent some hours in jail, and eventually we had a trial, and a judge decided that we were exercising our First Amendment rights. My children felt I was really exercising too much of... something. But they do support me and my efforts for change. We want a world of peace, we want the abolition of nuclear arms, we see the danger of climate change, so we have to fight on all those issues."
Burrows plans to continue to fight—and act—up until the end, and she's not one to mince words about mortality. "This is the path that I'm on—not much longer, let's be frank—and I have enjoyed and been deeply satisfied with the chance to use and develop my talents, and to try to effect some change in the world," she says. "We don't live just in theatre, we live in society, and we want to make a more fulfilling society for all. That is part of what I want to do as a human being and also as an actor."
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Vinie Burrows in Michael, part of the Mint Theater Company's Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories. Photos by Maria Baranova.