Ruby Dee: Actress and activist who fought for civil rights and broke through racial barriers on Broadway, in films and on TV

 

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Ruby Dee was an African American actress who defied segregation-era stereotypes by landing lead roles in films and on Broadway while maintaining a second high-profile career as a civil rights advocate, including MCing the 1963 March on Washington.

In a career spanning seven decades she Dee was known for a quietly commanding presence opposite powerful leading men, including Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones.

She won early acclaim as a chauffeur’s steadfast wife in the Broadway and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun starring Poitier, and then earned an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as the mother of a drug kingpin played by Washington in American Gangster (2007). In 1965 she became the first black actress to perform lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear.

Dee’s marriage to the actor and playwright Ossie Davis was one of Hollywood’s most enduring, lasting 56 years. They co-starred in films such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991), collaborated on the stage comedy Purlie Victorious, which Davis wrote and in which Dee starred on Broadway in 1961, and co-wrote a memoir, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

Dee and Davis stood by Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. They spoke out against lynching, protested against apartheid and pressured white-owned banks to give business loans to blacks in Harlem. Dee advocated racial equality in the arts, saying in 1970: “I’m sick of being offered scripts about hookers or goody-good nurses! Black women fall in love and have adventures and secrets and are just as driven and gutsy as a lot of white ladies in middle America.”

She and her husband rallied against the Vietnam War and defended Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 after being convicted of spying. Dee’s activism brought her in close contact with civil rights titans, from King to Harry Belafonte. In 1963, Dee and Davis hosted a fund-raiser for King after his release from jail. The couple developed an even closer friendship with Malcolm X, with Davis giving the eulogy at his funeral.

Although Dee is best known for her work on stage and film, she had many roles on television. She won an Emmy Award in 1991 for her portrayal of a housekeeper in the TV film Decoration Day, a story about race relations in the South, and she was a five-time Emmy nominee for roles in mini-series and guest spots. She was the first black actress to appear on the soap opera Peyton Place, playing a neurosurgeon’s wife in 1968. She had guest roles in 1960s series including The Fugitive and, more recently, a guest part on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

She was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland in 1922, her father a porter and waiter on the Pennsylvania railway, her mother a teacher. They moved to Harlem when Ruby was young. She joined the American Negro Theatre, whose members included Poitier and Belafonte. In 1941 she married Frankie Dee Brown and began using his middle name as a stage name. They were divorced in 1945, the year she graduated from Hunter College in romance languages.

In 1946, Dee landed a key role in Jeb, a Broadway play about a black soldier trying to make a new life in the American South after being wounded in battle. Davis was playing the title role, and though the show closed after nine performances, Davis and Dee continued working together, co-starring in the 1946 Broadway and national touring productions of Anna Lucasta, which featured Dee as a street-smart prostitute. They  married in 1948 in between rehearsals for another play.

Dee moved into films, including The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), in which she played the baseball player’s wife (the two couples were friends); Robinson played himself. She had a small role in No Way Out (1950), with Richard Widmark portraying a racist patient who taunts a black doctor played by Poitier.

In 1970, Dee won an Obie Award for her performance in Boesman and Lena, Athol Fugard’s a play about a South African mixed-race couple ostracised by both white and black communities. Boesman, played by James Earl Jones, is a brutish, cruel husband, beating Lena and compounding the sadness of her lonely, impoverished life. Dee called the part of Lena “the greatest role I’ve ever had. 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... I’m alive with her as I’ve never been on stage.”

She won a Grammy in 2007 for best spoken word album for With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together and appeared in the 2011 comedy Politics of Love, a film about romance on the 2008 campaign trail. She wrote two children’s books and a collection of poems and short stories, My One Good Nerve, which she also performed as a solo show. She said she planned to have her ashes placed in the same urn as her husband’s, with an inscription written by Davis, “In this thing together.”

Ruby Ann Wallace (Ruby Dee), actress and activist: born Cleveland, Ohio 27 October 1922; married 1941 Frankie Dee Brown (marriage dissolved), secondly Ossie Davis (died 2005; three children); died New Rochelle, New York 11 June 2014.

© The Washington Post

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