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Vinie Burrows, Acclaimed Actress Who Became an Activist, Dies at 99

Vinie Burrows, a Harlem-born stage actress who made her mark on Broadway in the 1950s, but who grew frustrated by how few choice roles were available for Black women and turned her focus to one-woman shows exploring the legacies of racism and sexism, died on Dec. 25 in Queens. She was 99.

Her death, at a hospice facility, was confirmed by her son, Gregory Harrison.

Ms. Burrows made the first Broadway appearance of her seven-decade career in 1950 alongside Helen Hayes and Ossie Davis in “The Wisteria Trees,” a reimagining of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” by the writer and director Joshua Logan that shifted the drama from an aristocratic Russian estate to a 19th-century Louisiana plantation.

Ms. Burrows in a scene from “The Wisteria Trees” (1950), in which she made her Broadway debut, with Ossie Davis, who is sitting beside her, and Maurice Edwards.Credit…Martin Beck Theater, via Performing Arts Legacy Project

Her Broadway career continued to blossom into the mid-1950s. Among the high-profile productions in which she appeared was a 1951 revival of “The Green Pastures,” Marc Connelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1930 retelling of Old Testament stories from an African American perspective. In the early 1960s, she appeared with Moses Gunn and Louis Gossett Jr. in a New York production of “The Blacks,” a searing and surrealistic examination of racial stereotypes and Black identity by the subversive white French author and playwright Jean Genet.

But despite her success, Ms. Burrows said in a 1994 interview with the Rochester, N.Y., newspaper The Democrat and Chronicle, she was beginning to feel dissatisfied chasing roles that tended toward what she called the “dese, dem and dose” variety. She was also dissatisfied with the scant pay.

“My babysitter — my little boy was 2 years old — I think made more money than I did,” she said of her experience in “The Blacks” in a 2020 interview with American Theatre magazine, “and I said, ‘I will never work so hard for anybody unless I am working for myself.’”

Instead, Ms. Burrows took matters into her own hands as a solo artist. She received rave reviews for her 1968 Off Broadway show, “Walk Together Children,” which she described as “the Black scene in prose, poetry and song,” drawing from the writings of enslaved people, poets and contemporary activists to trace the African American experience.

Ms. Burrows, the critic Clive Barnes wrote in a review in The New York Times, “wounds and hurts, giving some of Black America’s most excoriating literature the whiplash impetus of a relentless performance.

“Yet,” he added, “while angry, she is not bitter. She is all woman and all fundamental charm. She is a magnificent performer.”

She mounted more than 6,000 performances of the show, taking it on the road to college campuses as well as abroad. After a performance in Berlin, the veteran actress Lillian Gish came backstage to praise her. “That pretty well cemented it for me,” she said in a 1976 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “I knew I had talent and I knew that I had to do something with it.”

Mr. Burrows, second from right, in 1980 during a march in New York celebrating the 60th anniversary of the year women won the right to vote. For several decades she represented the Women’s International Democratic Federation at the United Nations.Credit…Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

Vinie (pronounced VINE-y) Veronica Burrows was born on Nov. 15, 1924, in Harlem, the elder of two children of George Nelson Burrows, a dentist, and Phyllis (Edwards) Burrows, a seamstress and dressmaker. The seeds of her activism were planted early.

“I had a sense from a very early age that the people in authority in my life were powerful, unknown, white — the landlord, the teacher, police,” she said in a 1975 interview with The Abilene Reporter-News, a Texas newspaper.

After graduating from Wadleigh High School (now Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts) in Manhattan, she enrolled in New York University, where, at the urging of her mother, she steered her coursework toward a career in law. A brief attempt to transfer to the drama department was dispiriting.

“The drama coach there told me quite simply, ‘We just don’t have anything for you,’” she later recalled. “‘There are a few roles occasionally for a maid, but that’s all.’”

She did not have to worry about such limitations once she turned to her solo career. Her first monologue, “The Female of the Species,” was a collection of famous dramatic scenes involving female characters. “But nobody was interested in seeing a Black actress do Juliet,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune. She received far more attention for her other solo shows, including “Sister! Sister!,” an examination of women facing oppression around the world, and “Dark Fire,” an interpretation of African myths and folk tales.

In addition to her son, Ms. Burrows is survived by a daughter, Sojourner; six grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandson. Her husband, Dean Harrison, a college administrator, died in 1997.

Over the years, Ms. Burrows traveled the world as an activist. For several decades she represented the Women’s International Democratic Federation at the United Nations and ran community-based programs for the organization Women for Racial and Economic Equality.

A winner of an Obie lifetime achievement award in 2020, she continued to act into her 90s; in 2017 she played a small part in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as part of the Shakespeare in the Park series in Central Park.

In an interview with The Times in 2019, Ms. Burrows expressed both pride in her career and lingering regret.

“I should be able to use my talents more,” she said. “And I can say that at 96 I should have been able to use them more when I was 20 or 25 or 35 or 45 or 65 or 75.

“There were limitations. There are still limitations. But I do my work. When I can. And I support every baby born having the opportunity to develop to his or her potential.”

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