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The Many Lives of Vinie Burrows

Remembering the activism and artistry of a New York theatre hero.

Alix Jeffry, c Houghton Library, Harvard University

When the actor and activist Vinie Burrows died, on December 25, 2023, surrounded by her family, she was ninety-nine. She had lived at least five lives. In the course of nearly a century, she had spent time as “one of the reigning divas of the Black theatre,” as the New York Post called her in 1996, but she had also been a representative at the United Nations for the Women’s International Democratic Federation, a self-made pioneer of touring solo shows (she counted at least six thousand performances), an antiwar protester with the Granny Peace Brigade, and, in her eighties and nineties, a newly flourishing muse of downtown theatre, which awarded her an Obie for Lifetime Achievement in 2020.

Tiny (under five feet tall) and radiant, Burrows looked like a sparkler and sounded like a thunderstorm; she had a voice, rich and super-resonant, shaped for declamation. Her friend the playwright and performer Daniel Alexander Jones told me that she was “a living embodiment of the Black oratorical tradition,” connecting her thrilling, kettledrum timbre to that of Paul Robeson’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s. “When she would speak in a rehearsal room, if you put your hand on any wood, it would be vibrating,” Jones said.

Known to many as Ms. Vinie, Burrows was born in Harlem Hospital in 1924. Her own accounts of her birth year changed over the decades. After she was arrested, in 2005, for obstructing the Armed Forces’ Times Square Recruiting Station with the Granny Peace Brigade, her own lawyer tried to get her to reveal her age on the stand. She took the Fifth.

Burrows got her start performing in radio. (Her mother, Phyllis, was in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which ran a children’s drama class, which led to a Sunday radio program.) She trained early on at the American Negro Theatre, in Harlem, and was cast in her first Broadway role in 1950, appearing as Dolly May in “The Wisteria Trees,” a Chekhovian drama starring Helen Hayes. In an interview with American Theatre magazine, Burrows spoke about observing Hayes every night from the wings. “One evening after the show, she left the stage and said, ‘Damn if I wasn’t good!’ ” Burrows, though, felt that Hayes had been off that night. “I said to myself: The performer never actually knows what he or she has done,” Burrows said.

On Broadway in the fifties and early sixties, she appeared in six plays in quick succession, acting in parts opposite Ossie Davis, Dennis Hopper, and Eartha Kitt. When she was cast in the now legendary Off Broadway production “The Blacks,” by Jean Genet, from 1961, alongside soon-to-be superstars such as James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Cicely Tyson, she, too, seemed bound for conventional fame.

But Burrows never did quite become a household name. Frustrated by the parts being offered to her—too often a mammie or “lady of the evening,” according to program notes from the New Federal Theatre—she first thought about quitting the profession, and then decided to make her own path. Fusing her activist work with her artistic practice, she created eight one-woman shows: poetic anthologies, such as “Walk Together Children,” from 1968, and biographical portraits, like “Rose McClendon: Harlem’s Gift to Broadway,” in 1999. (She won an audelco Award for the latter.) In these years, she travelled all over the world, often as an emissary with the Women’s International Democratic Federation, a consultative organization, reporting to the United Nations. She was sent to a congress of Greek widows demanding pensions; she heard from women in Russia who wanted to be surgeons; she went to apartheid South Africa, and spoke before the U.N.’s Special Political Committee on what she saw there.

By the time I came to New York, in 2002, though, her epic era seemed to be behind her. When she was in the news, it was most often for her antiwar, pro-First Amendment protests with the Grannies or with New York activists Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir. I saw her in “Hecuba” at the Pearl, in 2006, as one of the chorus—TheaterMania called her “redoubtable,” which she certainly was—but New York theatre is forgetful. The “reigning diva” of one era can be almost obscure by the next.

Then came the Foundry Theatre’s exquisite 2013 revival of Bertolt Brecht’s “Good Person of Szechwan,” directed by Lear deBessonet. Burrows played a god, one of a capricious little trio of grandes dames, with Mia Katigbak and Annie Golden. (Katigbak laughingly recalled Burrows sitting quietly in the dressing room: “All of a sudden something would come out of her mouth, like, ‘Oh, that’s like when I had lunch with Brecht.’ ”) The night I saw “Good Person,” at La Mama, the trio was clustered together on a high balcony, wearing choir robes. Suddenly, Vinie’s robe caught fire after brushing against a light. An actor pointed up, saying, in a shocked, steady voice, “Fire. Fire.” I remember everyone went still. Then, after a terrible, long moment, the drummer in the onstage band, Eric Farber, leaped over his drum kit, scaled the balcony, and stamped out the flames. The show, and Vinie, went on.

“Good Person” was a hit, and, afterward, Burrows, then in her nineties, become a downtown icon all over again: she was a sprite-like ancestor in “The Homecoming Queen”; an ancestor-like sprite in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park; and one of the seventeenth-century Ranters, pledging herself to a just world, in Caryl Churchill’s “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire,” directed by Rachel Chavkin. (Her collaboration with Chavkin also included a complex, multiyear workshop of a production called “Reconstruction,” which will now go on without her.) The older Burrows became, the more directors chose her for her youthful quality. Coincidentally, my sister, Jane Shaw, directed the last stage production Vinie Burrows ever did: an adaptation of a Tolstoy short story, part of a duet of Russian plays at the Mint Theatre, in 2020. After the show one night, I overheard Burrows on the phone. She was practicing one of her songs, and worrying about whether the first notes were audible. As she had backstage in 1950, she was still trying to work out the distance between what the performer had been feeling onstage and what had actually been communicated to the audience.

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To many of us, Ms. Vinie was our last connection to a time swiftly passing out of mind. In the Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s “Witnessing History” video series, Burrows spoke about wanting to go to the Victory in Europe celebration in Times Square, in 1945. “I went to Forty-second Street and I got off the subway and I saw this immense crowd,” Burrows said. She turned around and fled. “All those white people together were menacing. In their joy, they would be menacing to me,” she said. The list of her touchstones includes figures from a vanished epoch—Thornton Wilder, Lillian Gish—and even the New York that raised her seems impossibly far away.

Theatre passes quickly, but thankfully Burrows’s wise, passionate, mischievous voice has been preserved. You can hear her talk about her work with the U.N. on the Performing Arts Legacy Project, or watch her meditate on “The Blacks” in the Foundry’s filmed Legacies Series, from 2002, or see her accept “fabulous sainthood,” a joyful award-slash-beatification from Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, in 2022. At her elevation ceremony that September, at the secular Earth Church in Manhattan, she read an adapted Margaret Walker poem, “For My People,” that she had used more than fifty years earlier, in “Walk Together Children.”

Let the martial songs
be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men—and women—now rise and take control!

It was only sixteen months ago, but, on the video, in which she sits next to her close friend, the Broadway actor Amber Gray, her thrumming voice still summons you to attention.

Gray, who thinks that Burrows’s truest legacy is in her work for justice, has been part of the “Reconstruction” project with Burrows and Chavkin for the past six years. “I’ve been keeping a document of all the random one-liners that Vinie said that made the whole room stop for a minute and get weepy,” she says. On the phone, Gray found a quote of Vinie’s that she particularly wanted to read to me: “I guess my love of language started with the Bible. Yeah, once you get rid of all the beginning and beginnings, the story is so compelling. And then you live it in your own life. Ha ha. Oh, you realize—there’s nothing new.” ♦

Helen Shaw joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2022. Previously, she was the theatre critic at New York magazine and also its culture vertical, Vulture. She has also written about theatre and performance for 4Columns and Time Out New York and contributed to the New York Sun, American Theatre magazine, the Times Book Review, the Village Voice, Art in America, and Artforum. She was co-awarded the 2017-18 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

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