Ruby Dee, actress and civil rights activist, dies at 91

Actress and activist Ruby Dee died June 11 at the age of 91. She defied segregation-era stereotypes by landing lead roles in movies and on Broadway. Here are four of her best-known film roles. (The Washington Post)

Ruby Dee, an actress who defied segregation-era stereotypes by landing lead roles in movies and on Broadway while maintaining a second high-profile career as a civil rights advocate, including emceeing the 1963 March on Washington, died June 11 at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91.

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

As a young woman, she won 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, Ms. Dee became the first black actress to perform lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., playing Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew” and Cordelia in “King Lear.” Moreover, critics consistently praised Ms. Dee’s ability to make the most demanding roles seem effortless. Off-Broadway in 1970, in Athol Fugard’s “Boesman and Lena,” she was commended for her searing portrayal of a South African woman beaten down by society and physically abused by her husband, played by Jones.

Ms. Dee’s marriage to actor and playwright Ossie Davis was widely regarded as one of Hollywood's most enduring and romantic, lasting 56 years, until his death in 2005. (Ms. Dee’s death, from undisclosed causes, was confirmed by Arminda Thomas, the archivist for Dee-Davis Enterprises.)

The couple's careers were deeply intertwined as they co-starred in films such as “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and “Jungle Fever” (1991), both directed by Spike Lee; collaborated on the comedic play “Purlie Victorious,” which Davis wrote and in which Ms. Dee starred on Broadway in 1961; and even partnered on a memoir, “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”

When Ms. Dee and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, it was said that they opened “many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America’s multicultural humanity.”

Tireless and determined activists, Ms. Dee and Davis stood by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Over the decades, the actors spoke out against lynching, protested apartheid in South Africa and pressured white-owned banks to give business loans to blacks in Harlem.

Ms. Dee had long advocated for racial equality in the performing arts, telling a reporter 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 took up other social causes, too, rallying against the Vietnam War and defending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Americans who were executed in 1953 after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage.

Ms. Dee's activism brought her in close contact with some of the titans of the civil rights movement, from King to entertainer Harry Belafonte. She had known Belafonte as a struggling young artist, recalling in “With Ossie and Ruby” that she used to tease him. “Harry would get up and sing along with the music playing on the radio,” she wrote, “and some of us would tease him, ‘Harry, puh-leeze! Do you have to?’ ”

In 1963, Ms. Dee and Davis hosted a fundraising event for King at a Manhattan hotel after his release from a Birmingham jail. The couple developed an even closer friendship with Malcolm X. Davis gave the eulogy at his funeral.

Director Lee admired Ms. Dee and Davis’s commitment to social causes. “They were strong and brave at a time when many Negro entertainers stood on the sidelines,” he told movie critic Roger Ebert in an interview. “Ruby and Ossie were by Malcolm’s side, they were with Dr. King in Birmingham, Selma, and the March on Washington, and never worried about the negative impact it might have on their careers.”

Although Ms. Dee is best known for her work on the stage and the big screen, she had many roles on television as well. She won an Emmy Award in 1991 for her portrayal of a housekeeper in the made-for-television movie “Decoration Day,” a story about race relations in the South. She was a five-time Emmy nominee for roles in miniseries and guest spots on regular programs.

Ms. Dee also was the first black actress to appear on the popular nighttime soap opera “Peyton Place,” playing a neurosurgeon’s wife named Alma Miles in 1968. She had guest roles in 1960s series including “The Fugitive” and “The Defenders” and in the 1979 miniseries “Roots: The Next Generation.” More recently, she had a guest part on CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

Ms. Dee shared many awards with Davis for their joint achievements, including the 1995 National Medal of Arts. They were inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame in 1989.

Her early years

Ruby Ann Wallace was born in Cleveland on Oct. 27, 1922. Many biographical records give her date of birth as 1924, but Thomas, the archivist, confirmed that she was born two years earlier.

Ms. Dee’s father, a porter and waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and her mother, a teacher, moved the family to Harlem when Ruby was young.

“Painfully shy” as a youth, she remembered a day at school when she read aloud a passage from a play to her classmates and they broke into applause. She said the reaction spurred her acting career.

Despite her interest in the theater, Ms. Dee said she wasn’t confident she could become a bona fide star.

“When I was young I dreamt of being a starlet in Hollywood,” she told the Seattle Times in 1996. “But there comes a point in every African American’s life when you realize the limitations, that you could only play maids or some little supporting role.”

Still, she joined the American Negro Theatre, a group that met in the basement of the New York Public Library and whose members included Poitier, Belafonte and Hilda Simms. Ms. Dee was an apprentice, so she not only performed but also mopped floors and peddled tickets.

In 1941, she married Frankie Dee Brown and began using his middle name as a stage name. They were divorced in 1945, the same year she graduated from New York’s Hunter College with a degree in romance languages.

In 1946, Ms. Dee landed a key role in “Jeb,” a short-lived Broadway play about a black soldier trying to make a new life for himself in the American South after being critically wounded in battle.

While working on “Jeb,” she met Davis, who was playing the title role. For Ms. Dee at least, it was not love at first sight. “I saw Ossie’s picture in the paper as the one who got the role,” she told the Seattle Times. “I thought, ‘The producers probably went down South and picked this guy out from behind a plow.’ The truth is, he was an intellectual!”

Although the show closed after just nine performances, Davis and Ms. Dee continued working together, co-starring in the 1946 Broadway and national touring productions of “Anna Lucasta,” a play by Philip Yordan that featured Ms. Dee as a street-smart prostitute.

Davis and Ms. Dee married in 1948 between rehearsals for another play. Survivors include their three children and seven grandchildren.

Ms. Dee transitioned to acting in films, including “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), in which she played the legendary athlete’s wife. Robinson played himself. She had a small role in “No Way Out” (1950), with Richard Widmark portraying a racist patient who taunts a black medical resident played by Poitier. She also appeared opposite Poitier as her potential suitor in “Edge of the City” (1957).

‘Greatest role I’ve ever had’

In 1970, Ms. Dee won an Obie Award for her performance in “Boesman and Lena,” a play set in South Africa about a biracial couple who have been ostracized by both the white and black communities. Boesman, played by Jones, is a brutish, cruel husband, beating Lena and compounding the sadness of her lonely, impoverished life. Ms. Dee called the part of Lena “the greatest role I’ve ever had.”

Describing how she felt playing Lena, she 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. . . . I’m alive with her as I’ve never been on stage.”

The role also won Ms. Dee critical acclaim, with Times theater critic Clive Barnes declaring, “Ruby Dee as Lena is giving the finest performance I have ever seen. It is complete — it has the quickness of life about it. Never for a moment do you think she is acting.”

Ms. Dee won a Grammy Award in 2007 for best spoken-word album for “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together,” and she continued her acting career with the 2011 comedy “Politics of Love,” a film about romance on the campaign trail leading up to the 2008 election.

Ms. Dee wrote two children’s books, “Two Ways to Count to Ten” and “Tower to Heaven,” and a collection of poems and short stories called “My One Good Nerve,” which she also performed as a one-woman 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.”

In 2008, Ms. Dee described the epitaph to Jet magazine: “If I leave any thought behind, it is that. We were in this thing together, so let’s love each other right now. Let’s make sense of things right now. Let’s make it count somehow right now, because we are in this thing together.”

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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