Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ruby Dee, RIP: An Actress Who Marched On Washington And Onto The Screen

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee at the 1989 Cannes Festival for the showing of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee at the 1989 Cannes Festival for the showing of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.
Courtesy of David Lee
Born Ruby Ann Wallace in the early 1920s in Cleveland, actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee most identified with the part of New York City where she was raised.

"I don't know who I would be if I weren't this child from Harlem, this woman from Harlem. It's in me so deep," Dee told NPR's Tell Me More in 2007.

She died Wednesday of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She was 91.

Dee, who took the surname of her first husband, blues singer Frankie Dee, grew up in Harlem's rich cultural neighborhood, writing poetry. 

Over the years she would become a playwright, screenwriter, journalist and one of the most prominent actresses of her time, known for her roles in the 1961 film A Raisin in the Sun and the 2007 film American Gangster, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.

Ruby Dee won a Screen Actors Guild award for American Gangster in 2008.
Ruby Dee won a Screen Actors Guild award for American Gangster in 2008.
Kevork Djansezian/AP
Dee told NPR that as a child, she didn't know any black screen idols.

"It occurred to me that I was not white," she said. "It occurred to me that being what they call 'colored,' being a Negro, was some kind of a disadvantage."

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But that didn't stop her. While studying at Hunter College, Dee joined the American Negro Theater. That's where she met Sidney Poitier; they starred in five films together, including A Raisin in the Sun, in which she played a suffering housewife in the projects.

It was during her time at the American Negro Theater that she also met Ossie Davis, the man who would become her husband.

She and Davis would become lifelong partners on screen and off. During the civil rights era in the 1960s, they marched for the rights of African-Americans, alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Both were emcees for the March on Washington in 1963 and were associated with nearly every civil rights group, from the NAACP to the Black Panthers.

"I never thought about myself as an activist when we were coming along," she said. "I love the people I love. I didn't care whether they could be a Democrat, Republican, communist ... anything but a racist."

More On Ruby Dee

Kenny Leon, who directed a revival of A Raisin in the Sun 10 years ago, says Dee and Davis inspired generations of actors and activists.

"A lot of us stand on the shoulders of her and Ossie Davis," Leon tells NPR, adding that Dee was "never didactic; art by its very nature is political, and that was the lesson she gave us."

Leon says Dee always brought herself to her characters, "which also gave it edge, gave it heart, and gave it a realness and a truthfulness that could not be denied."

Director Spike Lee was so inspired by the art and activism of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis that he cast them both in his 1989 film Do the Right Thing and his 1991 film Jungle Fever.

On Instagram, Lee :
"I know Ruby has already been embraced in a warm loving hug from her life partner of 57 years: Mr. Ossie Davis. It has been one of my great blessings in life to work with two of the finest artists and activists. Ruby and Ossie were in the battlefields with Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Ruby And Ossie served as a living example that one could be an artist and an activist, too; That one could be an artist and still deal with what it means to be a Black woman and a Black man in these United States."
During her lifetime, Ruby Dee won a Grammy, an Emmy and also received the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. She told NPR how she herself would like to be remembered: "In those little flashes of moments ... that pick us up from some moments of despair."


Ruby DeeObituariesOssie Davis
Ruby Dee, actress and civil rights activist, dies at 91
Actress Ruby Dee, dead at 91, broke into the national limelight in 'A Raisin in the Sun'
Ruby Dee and her husband, Ossie Davis, were masters of ceremonies at the 1963 March on Washington

When Ruby Dee was in high school, she couldn't get a part in the drama club's upcoming production.
Nothing personal, the club's head explained: There were just no roles for maids.
"I never inquired again," Dee later wrote. "And I never went to see any plays there either."
A Harlem girl who wrote poetry but waded into a few street fights, Dee bounced back quickly. Over more than seven decades, she became one of the most highly regarded performers in American drama, even while struggling to carve out roles deeper than the eye-rolling maids and long-suffering, all-forgiving mother figures that were the industry standard for black actresses.

Dee, who with her late husband Ossie Davis emceed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington and was celebrated for her civil rights activism as well as for her powerful performances, died Wednesday at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91.
Her death from age-related causes was confirmed by her Los Angeles agent, Michael Livingston.
Dee started acting in 1940 with the American Negro Theatre, a troupe headquartered in the basement of a Harlem public library. She later attained national stature with the stage and screen versions of "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking play about three generations of a black family in Chicago struggling with the white community and one another.
The play — the first written by a black woman to reach Broadway — featured Dee as Ruth Younger, an exhausted housemaid and pregnant mother trying to keep her fractious clan together. In his 1959 review, the New York Herald Tribune's Walter Kerr praised Dee for her portrayal of a beleaguered woman "holding back the tartness that is always ready at the edge of her tongue."

"With a light shift of her voice, she commands a rebellious child to kiss her goodbye; with an unobtrusive gesture, she flicks an ironing board from a sofa so that a lounging and slightly fatuous college boy can relax in a tenement," Kerr wrote. "Miss Dee is lovely to watch, if you can catch her rustling from mood to mood as the bitterness around her grows."
After a lifetime in dozens of films that included "The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950) and the Spike Lee productions "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "Jungle Fever" (1991), she received her first Academy Award nomination in 2008 for her work in "American Gangster," the story of a high-rolling black drug lord in New York.
Nominated at age 83 in the supporting actress category, Dee was on screen for less than 10 minutes. Even so, she conveyed a powerful impression of barely controlled outrage, climaxing with a sharp slap to the face of her smooth, cop-killing son Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington.

"It's not far from my nature to whack," she told USA Today in 2008.
While Dee did not get the Oscar, she received numerous awards for her stage and television work.
In 1991 she won an Emmy for her performance in "Decoration Day" as the testy housekeeper for a retired Georgia judge played by James Garner. In 2000 she and Davis received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award — an occasion they used to lecture Hollywood about social responsibility.
"Why can't we image makers become peacemakers too?" Dee asked in accepting the award. "Why cannot we, in such a time as this, use all the magic of our vaunted powers to lift the pistol from the schoolboy's backpack?''

Dee, whose voice was described as silken in contrast to her husband's rich baritone, was the first African American woman to play major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. In 1965, she was Cordelia in "King Lear" and Katherina in "Taming of the Shrew."
But, as she told the Chicago Tribune in 1995, being a "first" was sometimes a bittersweet victory for African Americans.
"One should whisper that," she said. "One shouldn't be proud that the sum total of the body of the American mentality would permit such unfairness for so long."
Dee's activism started when she spoke out at a rally for a New York music teacher who killed herself after funding cuts eliminated her job. Dee, her student, was 11 at the time.
In 1953 she publicly protested the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the New York couple convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Dee was branded a "fellow traveler" — a Communist sympathizer — for supporting them.

In the wake of the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four young black girls, she and Davis organized a boycott of Christmas shopping, urging Americans to support civil rights groups instead. In 1965 they marched for civil rights in Selma, Ala. In 1999 they were arrested as they protested the fatal shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police officers.
Described by the Washington Post as "the first couple" of the civil rights movement, they were friendly with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and many other black leaders. Their daughter Nora Davis Day once told an interviewer about coming downstairs at the family home in New Rochelle to find Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton asleep on the living room sofa.
Born Oct. 27, 1922, in Cleveland, Ruby Ann Wallace was raised in New York City, where her father worked as a waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad and her stepmother took in boarders to make ends meet.
A graduate of Hunter High School in Manhattan, Dee attended Hunter College and received a bachelor's degree in languages, focusing on French and Spanish.
After an early marriage ended in divorce in 1945, she met Davis the next year. They were appearing together in "Jeb," a short-lived Broadway play about a black war hero coming home. Davis, who played the lead, struck her as a gawky bumpkin in ill-fitting clothes — "strictly country," she later joked to an interviewer.
When he proposed in a telegram two years later, her acceptance spoke volumes about a relationship steeped in humor.
"Well, OK," she told him, "but don't do me no favors!"
In 1946 and 1947, Davis and Dee starred in the popular play "Anna Lucasta" and took it on the road. At its Hollywood opening, Charlie Chaplin was so impressed he vowed to make it a movie. He did — but he replaced the play's all-black cast with white actors, including Paulette Goddard, the star he had secretly married.
Over the next decades Dee landed many film roles, gaining national attention in 1950 as Jackie Robinson's supportive wife Rachel in "The Jackie Robinson Story." The famous ballplayer played himself.
The following year Dee played a slave in "The Tall Target," a film based on a failed 1861 plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
While Dee's reputation grew, her roles continued to inhibit her.
"She'd run through the perfect wife-girlfriend bit to the point where she was — as one newspaper called her — 'the Negro June Allyson,' " wrote film historian Donald Bogle in "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films."

"She always seemed to force a smile while standing by nervously and accepting whatever her men might throw her way," he wrote. "Her audience longed to see her break loose."
That she did, not only with "A Raisin in the Sun" but also in the 1970 Broadway production of Athol Fugard's "Boesman and Lena," a South African play about the struggles of a homeless, mixed-race couple.
"With Lena, I am suddenly, gloriously free," Dee told the New York Times. "I can't explain how this frail, tattered little character took me over and burrowed so deep inside me that my voice changed and I began to move differently."
New York Times critic Clive Barnes lauded Dee for "the finest performance I have ever seen."
"You have no sense of someone portraying a role," he wrote. "Her manner, her entire being have a quality of wholeness that is rarely encountered in the theater."

Over the years Dee and Davis appeared together in plays, TV productions and a half-dozen films, including "Gone Are the Days!," a 1963 adaptation of Davis' play "Purlie Victorious." In 1981 they produced "With Ossie and Ruby," a PBS series of chats about the African American experience with writers and performers around the U.S.
Dee also made regular appearances on TV soap operas including "The Guiding Light" and "Peyton Place."
In 1989, director Spike Lee introduced the couple to a new generation of fans in "Do the Right Thing," a story about street life and racial tensions in a New York neighborhood. As Mother Sister, Dee is a gossipy widow. As Da Mayor, Davis roams the streets, drinking beer and philosophizing.
Together they "stand for the older generation, whose cynical, 'realistic' attitude toward living in a white society may have kept them from finding ways out of their poverty but may also have helped keep them alive," wrote critic Terrence Rafferty in the New Yorker.
In 1998 and 1999 Dee staged a national tour of "My One Good Nerve," a one-woman show highlighting the stories and poems she wrote and published in a book of the same name.

In 2004 she and Davis received the Kennedy Center Honors for their contributions to the performing arts.
On Feb. 4, 2005, Davis, who had a history of heart problems, was found dead in his Miami Beach hotel room. At 87, he had been working on a film called "Retirement."
At the time Dee was on location in New Zealand for "No. 2," a film about an extended Fijian family, with Dee as the matriarch.
In their joint memoir, they left instructions for their cremation.
"Whoever goes first will wait for the other," they wrote. "When we are united at last, we want the family to say goodbye and seal the urn forever. Then on the side, in letters not too bold but not too modest either, we want the following inscription: 'Ruby and Ossie — In This Thing Together.' "
Dee's survivors include son Guy Davis, daughters Nora Davis Day and Hasna Davis Muhammad and seven grandchildren.

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