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Ruby Dee, a graceful yet fierce theatrical and political trailblazer

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She always looked so beautiful – a beauty that came from within, from knowing that even when silent you are fighting the good fight. Whether speaking at the March on Washington in 1963 or sharing a movie scene with Denzel Washington or a stage with James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee – small in stature but not influence – commanded attention. Just last weekend, Tony award-winner Audra McDonald called Dee’s name as she thanked “all the shoulders of the strong and brave and courageous women that I’m standing on.” She was not the only one who felt that way. On Thursday word came that Dee, 91, had died.

That she had lived a long, eventful life does not ease the blow. When Ruby Dee leaves the earth, we are all the poorer for it. She seems to have always been there, usually with Ossie Davis, her husband for 56 years, although his death in 2005 altered that equation. Her characters will stay with us.

Ruby Dee arrives at the 80th Annual Academy Awards on February 24, 2008 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images) Ruby Dee arrives at the 80th Annual Academy Awards on February 24, 2008, in Hollywood. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

“Mother Sister” was her name in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Davis appeared with her as “Da Mayor” in that 1989 film. In repeated viewings, a major delight is seeing how they treated each other: listening to them exchange gentle jibes and watching him take her arm during the chaotic climax. It was art and, you suspect, life, a product of decades sharing the same goals and dreams, a back-and-forth conversation carried on in their joint memoir “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”

They worked to make those dreams, of equality and fairness, come true for many, without concern, as Lee has noted, for how it would affect their careers as actors. It was a consequential choice when you consider how precarious the occupation can be, even for those who don’t struggle – as Dee and Davis had to — for parts that showcased range and avoided stereotypes. He sometimes wrote their own vehicles, such as his comic “Purlie Victorious” – they starred on Broadway and in the film version.

Dee and Davis were on the front lines of the civil rights movement, standing beside and raising funds for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and befriending Malcolm X. “Our own black shining prince,” Davis called Malcolm in the eulogy. Dee’s memberships in groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP involved more than writing checks.

On the stage, Dee brought Shakespeare to life in lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., in 1965, breaking barriers in the entertainment world.

In some of her films, she was cast as helpmate, such as the stalwart wife of Jackie Robinson in the 1950 film of the baseball great’s life. She originated onstage and re-created onscreen Ruth Younger, the overburdened, underappreciated wife in Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” and effortlessly, as usual, juggled a mix of strength and vulnerability. When she cracked under the pressure, she made your heart break.

A television show from the 1970’s haunts me, a televised version of a stage play that had to wait years for a production because the subject – a black woman and white man who try to love one another in World War I-era South Carolina – was considered too controversial for audiences to handle. In “The Wedding Band” by African American playwright Alice Childress, Dee’s character was far from perfect. She could be angry and mean and human, and I still remember scenes between Dee and co-star J.D. Cannon as though I saw them last night.

That was Dee’s magic. She brought a dignity and complicated humanity to what she did and to whom she portrayed. One wonders how much higher her profile could have risen had she not been hampered by the limited imaginations of those who could not envision the heights she could reach. Yet, she pushed the boundaries, not only for herself but for the next generations.

I actually met her once, a few years ago, when she traveled to Charlotte for the premiere of a small, independent film, 2007’s “All About Us.” It was a small part, but she wasn’t small in it. She shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with people who couldn’t believe they were meeting Ruby Dee, and I have to admit that I added little to our conversation. I did manage to thank her.

She was beautiful, soft-spoken and kind, this petite woman who collected a Grammy, Emmy, a National Medal of Arts, Kennedy Center Honors with Davis in 2004, and so many other awards. She carried her achievements lightly.

Last weekend, at a memorial in North Carolina, many remembered the gifts Maya Angelou left to others and the world. Dee was one of the stars of the television adaptation of Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a connection that seems appropriate.

They are just two pioneers who worked to make it easier for those left behind to make sense of this world, and to navigate it with generosity, resolve and grace.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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