Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ruby Dee Assumed Many Roles – Actor, Playwright, Pioneer, Activist ...

Ruby Dee at the March on Washington. Archive photos.


acting career started at the American Negro Theater (ANT), founded in 1940 as the Negro unit of the Federal Theater Project. Her first role was as Cobina in "On Strivers Row" in 1940. She appeared in productions there from 1941 to 1943.

Ruby Ann Wallace Dee, who died at the age of 91 on 11 June in New Rochelle, NY, leaves behind an impressive legacy of acting, activism and other pursuits.

Over the seven decades she spent on stage, RD appeared in productions by Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Athol Fugard and Moliere, among others.

The Cleveland, Ohio native was a pioneer and activist throughout her career. Colorblind casting was uncommon when she played Cordelia in "King Lear" and Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew." In 1965, RD was the first black woman to appear in major roles at Stratford, Connecticut's American Shakespeare Festival. In 1968, she was the first black actress with a regular role on a primetime TV soap, "Peyton Place."

Of these milestones, the artist once said all the celebrations over the many "firsts" she achieved - first black female actress as a regular on a TV series, for instance - could also be looked upon as a badge of shame for America.  

On the world stage, she was an advocate for civil rights and equality. About her activism, she has said, “That's what being young is all about. You have the courage and the daring to think that you can make a difference. You're not prone to measure your energies in time. You're not likely to live by equations.”

Along with her husband, Ossie Davis, RD stood by Martin Luther King Jr. when he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech and emceed the 1963 March on Washington. RD, who grew up in Harlem, also picketed Broadway theaters that did not hire black players and protested against film sets that did not hire enough blacks. Fittingly, Broadway theaters dimmed their light for one minute on Friday (13 June) in honor of this leading light.

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier in a promotional poster for "A Raisin in the Sun."

Her activism also led her to look for more films that addressed racial inequity, working with Jules Dassin in adapting Liam O'Flaherty's "The Informer." John Ford directed a film version set in Cleveland titled “Up Tight,” about black revolutionaries betrayed by one of their own.

RD wrote and adapted dozens of works over the years, including "Zora is My Name," in which she starred at a Howard University production in 1983. In 1979, OD directed her in "Take It From The Top," a musical play she wrote with their son, Guy Davis.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in "Jeb."

From 1959 to 1960, RD played Ruth Younger opposite Sidney Poitier, and then OD who took over the role from SP, in the original Tony-nominated production of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" at the Belasco Theatre. "A Raisin in the Sun" was reprised in 1961 as a film, starring RD and SP. In 2005, it was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry for its historic, aesthetic and cultural significance.

She and Ossie Davis wed during the rehearsals for "The Smile of The World" in which she was Evelyn at the Lyceum Theatre. The couple, who often worked together, were married for 56 years when OD died in February 2005.

Ruby Dee (front row, center) with fellow Kennedy City Honors recipients Sir Elton John, Warren Beatty, Ossie Davis, John Williams and Joan Sutherland.

RD's only Oscar nomination came with "American Gangster" (see video above) in 1983, but her film work, which started with a small role in "That Man of Mine" in 1946, netted her numerous other awards.

Among her many accolades were a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild and the Kennedy Center Honors' National Medal of Arts, as well as a Grammy, Emmy and Drama Desk award.

At this writing, arrangements for a viewing and memorial service are still being made.

As her name suggests, Ruby was precious.

Visit to learn more about Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

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