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Ruby Dee Biography - Selected works

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1924—

Actress, civil rights activist, writer

Actress and social activist Ruby Dee expressed her philosophy in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America: "You just try to do everything that comes up. Get up an hour earlier, stay up an hour later, make the time. Then you look back and say, 'Well, that was a neat piece of juggling there—school, marriage, babies, career.' The enthusiasms took me through the action, not the measuring of it or the reasonableness."

Dee's performing career has spanned more than 60 years and has included theater, radio, television, and movies. She and her husband, the late actor Ossie Davis, raised three children and were active in such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), as well as supporters of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Ruby Ann Wallace was born on October 27, 1924, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents, Marshall and Emma Wallace, moved the family to New York City in search of better job opportunities, ultimately settling in Harlem. Emma Wallace was determined not to let her children become victims of the ghetto that the area was quickly becoming. Dee and her siblings studied music and literature. In the evening, under the guidance of their school-teacher mother, they read aloud to each other from the poetry of Longfellow, Wordsworth, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. The influence of this education became apparent early in Dee's life, for as a teenager she began submitting poetry to the New York Amsterdam News, a black weekly newspaper.

Her love of English and poetry motivated Dee to study the arts, especially the spoken arts. Her mother had been an elocutionist who, as a young girl, wanted to be in the theater. Fully realizing the value of a good education, Dee decided that the public schools of Harlem, where so many of the black girls were being "educated" to become domestics, were not for her. She underwent the rigorous academic testing required for admittance to Hunter High School, one of New York's first-rate schools that drew the brightest girls. The self-confidence and poise that Dee's mother had instilled in her helped Ruby adjust to her new environment, which was populated with white girls from more privileged backgrounds. A black music teacher, Miss Peace, provided encouragement to the young Ruby, telling her to go as far and as quickly as she could.

While in high school, Dee decided to pursue acting. In an interview with the New York Times, she related that this decision was made "one beautiful afternoon in high school when I read aloud from a play and my classmates applauded." After graduation she entered Hunter College. There Dee joined the American Negro Theater (ANT) and adopted the on-stage name Ruby Dee. The struggling theater had little money, so in addition to rehearsing their parts the troupe sold tickets door-to-door in Harlem and performed all the maintenance duties in the theater, located in a basement auditorium of the 135th Street Library. Dee found the work she did with the ANT to be a memorable part of her training. Other young actors who started at the ANT and eventually became famous include Harry Belafonte, Earl Hyman, and Sidney Poitier.

While still at Hunter College, Dee took a class in radio training offered through the American Theater Wing. This training led to a part in the radio serial Nora Drake. When she graduated from Hunter College in 1945, Dee took a job at an export house as a French and Spanish translator. To earn extra income, she worked in a factory painting designs on buttons. Dee knew, however, that the theater was to be her destiny.

In 1946 Dee got her first Broadway role in Jeb, a drama about a returning black war hero. Ossie Davis, the actor in the title role, caught Dee's attention. After watching him do a scene in which he was tying a necktie, Dee experienced an awareness that she and Davis would share some type of connection. Critical reviews were good, but the play ran for only nine performances. Dee's intuition, however, proved to be true. She and Davis became close friends and worked together in the road company production of Anna Lucasta. Later they played Evelyn and Stewart in Garson Kanin's Smile of the World and were married on December 9, 1948, during a break in rehearsals for that play. (Davis died in 2005.)

Dee's first movie was Love in Syncopation, which was released in 1946. In 1950 she appeared in The Jackie Robinson Story as the legendary baseball player's wife. Also in that year she appeared in No Way Out, the story of a black doctor—played by Sidney Poitier—who is accused of causing the death of his white patient. The film was revolutionary for its time because it was the first American film in which blacks and whites confronted each other in a realistic way.

Over the next decade, Dee appeared in several plays and movies in which she was cast as the consummate wife or girlfriend—patient, always understanding, all-forgiving. Such roles spurred at least one publication to refer to her as "the Negro June Allyson." A few parts helped Dee break free from this stereotyping. Of note is the role of the ebullient Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in Davis's 1961 play Purlie Victorious. In this satire on black/white relationships, Davis plays the preacher Purlie who, with Lutiebelle's assistance, helps to outwit a white plantation owner. In 1963 this highly successful play was made into a movie titled Gone Are the Days and was later musicalized as Purlie.

Dee again was typecast as a long-suffering wife and daughter-in-law in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. She recreated her role as Ruth Younger in 1963 film version of the play. Donald Bogle, in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, noted that prior to A Raisin in the Sun, Dee's roles made her appear to be "the typical woman born to be hurt" instead of a complete person. Bogle continued, "But in A Raisin in the Sun, Ruby Dee forged her inhibitions, her anemia, and her repressed and taut ache to convey beautifully the most searing kind of black torment."

The one role Dee feels put an end to her stereotyped image was that of Lena in the 1970 production of Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena. Fugard, a white South African dramatist, portrays the dilemma of South Africa's mixed race people who are rejected by both blacks and whites. Lena wanders the South African wilderness and ekes out a living with her brutish husband Boesman, played by James Earl Jones. Dee told interviewer Patricia Bosworth in the New York Times that "Lena is the greatest role I've ever had." It was also her first theater role since 1966, and she was not sure she could do it. Her husband encouraged her, saying that the part could have been written for her even though Fugard had originally written the role of Lena with a white actress in mind.

At a Glance …

Born Ruby Ann Wallace on October 27, 1924 (some sources cite 1923 or 1927), in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Marshall and Emma (Benson) Wallace; married Ossie (an actor) Davis, December 9, 1948; children: Nora, Guy, LaVerne. Education: Hunter College, New York, BA 1945; studied with Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards at the Actors Workshop.

Career: Apprentice, American Negro Theatre, Harlem, 1941-44. Actress, 1946–.

Awards: New York Urban League, Frederick Douglass Award, 1970; Obie Award and Drama Desk Award, both 1971, both for Boesman and Lena; Drama Desk award, 1973, for Wedding Band; Actors Equity Association Paul Robeson Citation, 1975; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1975; Theater Hall of Fame, 1988; National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons Image Award, 1989, for Do the Right Thing, and 1999, for Promised Land; Literary Guild Award, 1989, for Two Ways to Count to Ten; Emmy Award, 1991, for Decoration Day; Screen Actors Guild, Life Achievement Award, 2001; St. Louis International Film Festival, Lifetime Achievement Award (with Ossie Davis), 1998; Kennedy Center Honors, honoree, 2004.

Addresses: Home—44 Cortland Avenue, New Rochelle, NY 10801.

Dee immediately felt a bond with Lena. "I relate to her particular reality," she told Bosworth, "because it is mine and every black woman's. I can understand the extent of her poverty and her filth and absolute subjugation.… On one level [Boesman and Lena] represent the universal struggle of black against white, man against woman. But they are also victims of something that is permeating an entire culture."

Dee finally realized that she was being offered a great part at a time when few, if any, good parts were written for black actresses. In the Bosworth interview she revealed, "I have always been reticent about expressing myself totally in a role. But with Lena I am suddenly, gloriously free. 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 am as] alive with her as I've never been on stage." Critics took note of Dee's performance. Clive Barnes wrote in his New York Times review of the play: "Ruby Dee as Lena is giving the finest performance I have ever seen.… Never for a moment do you think she is acting.… You have no sense of someone portraying a role.… her manner, her entire being have a quality of wholeness that is rarely encountered in the theater."

Beginning in the early sixties, Dee made numerous appearances on television including roles in the Play of the Week and in such television series as The Fugitive, The Defenders, The Great Adventure, and The Nurses. On Peyton Place, where in 1968-69 she played Alma Miles, the wife of a neurosurgeon, she was the first black actress to be featured on the widely-watched nighttime serial. Her performance in an episode of the series East Side, West Side earned her an Emmy nomination. In 1991 Dee's performance in Decoration Day won her an Emmy.

Dee and Davis collaborated on several projects designed to promote black heritage in general and other black artists in particular. In 1974 they produced The Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Story Hour, which appeared on more than 60 stations on the National Black Network. In conjunction with the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), they produced the series With Ossie and Ruby in 1981. It was work that Dee found particularly satisfying because she got to travel around the country talking to authors and others who could put the black experience in perspective. She believes that the series made black people look at themselves outside of the problems of racism.

Issues of equality and civil rights have long been a concern of Dee's. Her activism can be traced back to when she was 11 years old, and her music teacher lost her job when funds for the Federal Music Program were cut. The teacher, terrified that she could not find another job in the Depression-ridden country, committed suicide. At a mass meeting following the teacher's death, Adam Clayton Powell was the principal speaker, and Dee was chosen to speak in favor of restoring the music program. Several years would pass before Dee became actively involved in civil rights.

The year was 1953, and the cause was Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs had been convicted of wartime sabotage against the United States and were scheduled to be executed. Dee's vocal protest of the planned executions was expressed in several interviews with the press. Some accused her of being exploited by the Communists; others were convinced she was a card-carrying member of the party. Dee's notoriety for denouncing the U.S. government's decision to execute the Jewish Rosenbergs eventually parlayed itself into her first non-black part in a play. In The World of Sholem Aleichem, Dee played the Defending Angel. This experience helped Dee realize that racism and discrimination were not the exclusive provinces of black people—other races and cultures experienced it also. Dee began to understand how art and life blended together and how all human cultures are interrelated. She was inspired by these events to make a firm commitment to social activism.

Future events solidified this commitment. In September 1963, a bomb was thrown into a Birmingham, Alabama, church. The bomb killed four young black girls as they sat in their Sunday school class. People throughout the country were outraged by this senseless murder. Dee and Davis, along with other artists, formed the Association of Artists for Freedom. The group launched a successful boycott against extravagant Christmas spending and urged people to donate the money to various civil rights groups. Dee and Davis were involved in and supported several other civil rights protests and causes, including Martin Luther King's March on Washington. In 1970 the National Urban League honored them with the Frederick Douglas Award, a medallion presented each year for distinguished leadership toward equal opportunity.

By establishing the Ruby Dee Scholarship in Dramatic Art, Dee put into action her commitment to help others. The scholarship is awarded to talented young black women who want to become established in the acting profession. Both she and Davis donated money and countless hours of time to causes in which they believe. They founded the Institute of New Cinema Artists as a way to train chosen young people for film and television jobs. Their Recording Industry Training Program helps develop jobs for disadvantaged youths interested in the music industry.

Dee has also used her talent to make recordings for the blind and to narrate videocassettes that address issues of race relations. She has reinterpreted West African folktales for children and published them as Two Ways to Count to Ten and Tower to Heaven. Dee returned to poetry, her early love, to edit Glowchild and Other Poems and to collect her poems and short stories in a volume titled My One Good Nerve.

Dee's remarkable acting talent has endured over the years. She continued to appear in theater, movies, and television into the 2000s. In 1990 Dee appeared in the television movie The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson, playing Robinson's mother Mallie. Writing in New York, John Leonard laments that the movie gives Dee too little to do but commends her for "deliver[ing] one fine line" as she reprimands her son, who is about to sabotage his courtship with Rachel. With fervor Dee, in the role of Mallie, states: "I didn't raise my boys to have sharecropper minds!" Leonard attributes the conviction with which Dee played her part to the fact that she played the role of Rachel herself 40 years earlier.

Director Spike Lee cast Dee in the role of Mother Sister—and Davis in the role of Da Mayor—for his controversial 1989 film Do the Right Thing. As Mother Sister, Dee plays a widow who lives in a brownstone and spends her time watching the neighborhood through a ground-floor window. In New Republic Stanley Kauffmann described Dee as "that fine actress with an unfulfilled career in white America" and described her role in Lee's movie "as a sort of neighborhood Delphic oracle." Davis plays a beer-drinking street philosopher who is in love with Mother Sister.

As racial tension rises in the neighborhood, Mother Sister and Da Mayor are unable to do anything to diffuse it. According to Terrence Rafferty in the New Yorker, these two characters "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." Lee also cast the pair as the parents of the main character in Jungle Fever.

Though she was in her early 80s, Dee played the role of Nanny in the 2005 television production of author Zora Neale Hurston's classic work Their Eyes Were Watching God, to great critical acclaim. She was also scheduled to appear in several other movies.

In 1988 Ebony featured Dee and Davis as one of "Three Great Love Stories." Explaining the success of their long marriage, Dee told Ebony: "The ratio of the good times to the bad times is better than 50-50, and that helps a lot.… We shared a great deal in common; we didn't have any distractions as to where we stood in society. We were black activists. We had a common understanding." Davis added, "We believe in honesty. We believe in simplicity.… We believe in love. We believe in the family. We believe in black history, and we believe heavily in involvement. "

Selected works

Films

Love in Syncopation, 1946.

The Jackie Robinson Story, 1950.

No Way Out, 1950.

Go, Man, Go!, 1954.

Take a Giant Step, 1959.

Virgin Island, 1960.

A Raisin in the Sun, 1961.

Gone Are the Days, 1963.

The Incident, 1967.

Black Girl, 1972.

Do the Right Thing, 1989.

Jungle Fever, 1991.

A Simple Wish, 1997.

Baby Geniuses, 1999.

Baby of the Family, 2002.

Plays

Jeb, 1946.

Anna Lucasta, 1946.

The World of Sholom Aleichem, 1953.

A Raisin in the Sun, 1959.

Purlie Victorious, 1961.

Boesman and Lena, 1970.

Checkmates, 1988.

(And author) My One Good Nerve, 1999.

Television

East Side, West Side, 1963.

The Nurses, 1963.

Peyton Place, 1968-69.

Wedding Band, 1974.

(Co-producer) The Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Story Hour, 1974.

Roots: The Next Generations, 1979.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, 1979.

(And co-producer) With Ossie and Ruby, 1981.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1983.

The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson, 1990.

Decoration Day, 1991.

The Stand, 1994.

Mr. and Mrs. Loving, 1996.

Promised Land, 1998.

Finding Buck McHenry, 2000.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, 2005.

Writings

(With Jules Dassin and Julian Mayfield) Uptight (screenplay; adapted from Liam O'Flaherty's novel The Informer), Paramount, 1968.

(Editor) Glowchild and Other Poems, Third Press, 1972.

Twin-Bit Gardens (musical play; also known as Take It From the Top), produced Off-Broadway at New Federal Theater, 1979.

My One Good Nerve (poetry and short stories), Third World Press, 1986.

(Reteller) Two Ways to Count to Ten (juvenile), Holt, 1988.

"Zora Is My Name" (screenplay), American Playhouse, PBS, 1990.

(Reteller) Tower to Heaven (juvenile), Holt, 1991.

(With Ossie Davis) With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (memoir), W. Morrow, 1998.

My One Good Nerve (memoir), J. Wiley and Sons, 1999.

Sources

Books

Black Women in America, Carlson, 1993.

Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland, 1988.

Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, Viking, 1973.

Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, Scarecrow Press, 1990.

Fax, Elton C., Contemporary Black Leaders, Dodd, 1970.

Lanker, Brian, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, Stewart, Tabori, Chang, 1989.

Salley, Columbus, editor, The Black 100, Citadel Press, 1993.

Periodicals

Commonweal, January 13, 1989, p. 21; July 14, 1989, p. 403.

Cosmopolitan, August 1991, p. 28.

Ebony, February 1988, p. 152.

Essence, May 1987, p. 28.

Jet, December 5, 1988, p. 55; March 26, 2001.

Library Journal, October 1, 1991, p. 153; January 1992, p. 198.

Nation, July 17, 1989, p. 98.

National Review, August 4, 1989, p. 45.

New Republic, July 3, 1989, p. 24.

Newsweek, July 3, 1989, p. 64.

New York, August 22, 1988, p. 142; October 22, 1990, p. 136; November 26, 1990, p. 165.

New Yorker, July 24, 1989, p. 78.

New York Times, June 23, 1970; July 12, 1970.

People, July 3, 1989, p. 13; March 14, 2005.

Publishers Weekly, June 10, 1988, p. 80; May 17, 1991, p. 63.

School Library Journal, October 1990, p. 76; July 1991, p. 67; March 1992, p. 196.

Washington Post, December 5, 2004.

—Debra G. Harroun and

Tom Pendergast

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