Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Celebration of Women's History Month: Ruby Dee

March is Women’s History Month and every year, Harlem One-Stop pays homage to women who have achieved great things and made valuable contributions to society. This year, we’re honoring Ruby Dee, an actress who has appeared in hundreds of plays, movies, and television shows, the author of several books, and a staunch political activist.

Ruby Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace in 1922 in Cleveland, 
Ohio, and grew up in Harlem. She fell in love with acting during her teen years studying at both Hunter College and the American Negro Theater in Harlem. Dee began her career as a stage actress making her debut in 1946 in the Broadway production of Anna Lucusta and was married to blues singer Frankie Dee Brown from 1941-1946. In 1948, she married fellow actor Ossie Davis, her best friend and frequent co-star whom she met while starring in Robert Ardrey’s play Jeb about a black soldier who returns home to his family in the south with a broken leg after serving in World War II.  Dee then made her film debut playing Jackie Robinson’s wife Rae Robinson in the 1950 biographical film The Jackie Robinson Story starring Robinson himself. Dee’s next big break came in 1959 when she landed the role of Ruth Younger in a Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun in 1959, for which she received critical acclaim. Sidney Poitier was her co-star in the playing the role of Ruth’s husband Walter. Dee and Poitier would reprise their roles in a 1961 television version the play.

Dee continued getting more and more honorable roles in film, theater, and television and often collaborated with her husband. She starred in Davis’ 1961 Broadway play Purlie Victorious in which Davis played the title role of preacher Purlie Victorious Judson who tries to save a local Georgia church and Dee played a housemaid. The two would play the same parts in a 1963 film version of the play. In 1965, she became the first black woman to star in lead roles playing Cordelia in King Lear and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew at the American Film Festival in Stratford, Ct., and she was the first black actress to star on an evening soap opera playing Alma Miles on Peyton Place in 1968.

In 1980, Dee and her husband launched a half-hour talk show called Ossie and Ruby that aired on PBS where they presented the work of black artists. They received high praise for their roles in Spike Lee’s 1989 drama Do The Right Thing where Dee won an Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture and Davis for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. In 1998, celebrating 50 years of marriage, the two wrote an autobiography called With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together which is an honest account of their lives as a couple and as individuals as well as the professional and personal challenges they’ve faced and overcame.

Ossie Davis’ unexpected death in 2005 was a devastating loss for Dee, but despite her grief, she continued to work receiving a Screen Actors Guild award and an Academy Award nomination for her role as the mother of notorious drug dealer Frank Lucas played by Denzel Washington, and most recently narrated the 2013 biographical television film Betty and Coretta about the widows of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Other notable roles during the later years of Dee’s life include those of Grandmother Baxter in a 1979 television production of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings based on Maya Angelou’s classic novel, prolific author Zora Neale Huston on the 1990 PBS special Zora Is My Name, and Rowena in the 1991 film Decoration Day for which she won an Emmy.

Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were very active during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s participating in several marches including the 1963 March on Washington where they served as emcees. They spoke out on numerous issues fighting for the rights of African Americans, and were close friends with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X with Davis delivering the eulogy at the latter’s funeral. Dee was a member of many civil rights groups and organizations including NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The two have also earned many awards and recognition for their activism and contributions to the arts. Dee won a National Medal of the Arts in 1995 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2000. In 2004, she and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors. In 2007, Dee and Davis’ memoir With Ossie and Ruby won a Grammy for best spoken word album, a category that includes audio books.

Other books Dee has published include My One Good Nerve which features a collection of short essays, stories, and poems, and the children’s books Two Ways to Count to Ten, and Tower to Heaven.
While Dee has firmly established herself as a successful actress and activist, Dee has never forgotten her roots and credits growing up in Harlem to be a major part of her identity. "I don't know who I would be if I weren't this child from Harlem, this woman from Harlem. It's in me so deep," she has said. 

Ruby Dee passed away on June 11, 2014 at age 91 at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Alison Martin for Harlem One Stop

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