Local talent returns home to perform in musical
March 23, 2017
In Grade three, a teacher at Joyce Park Public School in North York spotted Karen Burthwright’s artistic talent and submitted her and a classmate’s names to audition for Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Each year, the school offers tryouts to nearly 500 young people for an opportunity to enrol in the enriched arts education program forGrades four to eight pupils who have demonstrated talent in music, drama, dance and the visual arts.
She was accepted and joined the specialized arts school the next year.
As a birthday treat before becoming a teenager, Burthwright’s mother took her to see a Broadway show annually.
“I remember pointing to the stage one year and saying, ‘Mommy, this is what I want to do’,” recounted Burthwright who is the African-American female swing in ‘Sousatzka’ which opens tonight at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St.
Based on the original novel ‘Madame Sousatzka’, the new musical is set in London, England in 1982 and tells the story of a musical prodigy torn between two powerful women from vastly different worlds – his mother, a political refugee from South Africa, and hispiano teacher who is a brilliant eccentric with a shattered past.
The women must work towards crossing both cultural and racial divides to find common ground, or risk the young musician's destiny in the process.
A New York resident for the last five years, Burthwright is playing five roles in the show’s acting ensemble.
“Getting this job was a dream come true because it allowed me to come back to Toronto, where I was born, for four months,” she said. “This is an opportunity for me to experience my mom’s home cooking and hook up with friends, family, co-workers and teachers I have not seen for years. Since I left, I come back once or twice a year for short periods because I am busy working and trying to earn a living. It’s a constant grind trying to make ends meet.”
‘Sousatzka’ flashes back to 1970s Soweto as well as to Warsaw before the Second World War and during the Nazi occupation.
“Another reason I am extremely pleased to be part of this production is that half of the 47-member cast of Canadian and American performers is Black and most of them are of Caribbean heritage,” she said. “Our community is depicted and represented in this musical as we comprise the South Africa side of the storytelling. My hope is that as my career proceeds, I can look out into an audience in theatres and see more Black faces.”
Burthwright graduated from Earl Haig Secondary School where she choreographed the annual fashion show, ‘Images in Fashion’, for four straight years and taught dance at Markham and Mississauga studios.
While pursuing anthropology & psychology studies at McMaster University, she joined the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak and was later elevated to dance captain and choreographer. She also spent two years dancing at Canada’s Wonderland, sang the national anthem at the Rogers Centre and was a Dora Mavor Moore Awards presenter before landing her first lead role as ‘Petal’ in ‘The Nutmeg Princess’.
Cast in the Toronto and first national touring companies of ‘Mamma Mia” launched her musical theatre career. While touring Chicago with ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Dirty Dancing’ and ‘Hairspray’, Burthwright developed a love for the windy city and spent almost three and a half years there acting locally before moving to New York in 2012 where she made her Broadway debut in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.
She said becoming an American resident has been extremely beneficial.
“Opportunities in my field are sparse in Canada and there is only so far you can go,” Burthwright, whose film & television credits include ‘The New Superman Man of Steel’, ‘Journey to Freedom’ and ‘Blues Brothers’, pointed out. “If you want to expand your horizon, you have to put yourself in a position to seize opportunities. ‘No’ is an answer you get quite often in my industry and there is lots of competition for opportunities. My main thing was if I wanted to be considered equal to my peers and have opportunities just like them to be hired, I had to get a green card and become a permanent resident so I could work in both Canada and the United States.”
Two years ago, she appeared in the Panamania-commissioned ‘Obeah Opera’ which synthesized the breadth of Black music into an enthralling stage a cappella and was selected to be part of the Toronto 2015 Pan & Parapan American Games arts & culture program.
The first generation Canadian of Jamaican descent was part of the 14-member all-female cast that animated the story of the Salem Witch Trials from the unique perspective of enslaved women. A series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693 ended with 20 executions, the majority women.
Burthwright feels blessed to be working in a field that allows her to express her creativity.
“With my career, there is no separation between who I am, what I am and what I do,” she said. “I am a singer, actor and dancer. Those are the gifts and skills I have been given and I use my mind and body to do what I do for a living. To have a teacher recognize at an early stage I had the ability to do those things and to have my mother help me hone my skills and support me along the way has been huge.”
‘Sousatzka’s’ pre-Broadway strictly limited engagement is scheduled to run through April 9. Planning is underway for a Broadway premiere in the fall.