Actress and Civil Rights Activist Ruby Dee Dead at 91

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Ruby Dee, an acclaimed actor and civil rights activist whose versatile career spanned stage, radio, television and film, has died at age 91, according to her daughter.

Nora Davis Day told the Associated Press on Thursday that her mother died at home in New Rochelle, New York, on Wednesday night.

Dee, who frequently acted alongside her husband of 56 years, Ossie Davis, was surrounded by family and friends, she added.

Dee's long career brought her an Oscar nomination at age 83 for best supporting actress for her role in the 2007 film American Gangster. She also won an Emmy and was nominated for several others.

"I think you mustn't tell your body, you mustn't tell your soul, 'I'm going to retire,'" Dee told AP in 2001. "You may be changing your life emphasis, but there's still things that you have in mind to do that now seems the right time to do. I really don't believe in retiring as long as you can breathe."

'We Used the Arts as Part of Our Struggle'
Since meeting on Broadway in 1946, she and her late husband were frequent collaborators. Their partnership rivaled the achievements of other celebrated performing couples, such as Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

But they were more than a performing couple. They were also activists who fought for civil rights, particularly for blacks.

"We used the arts as part of our struggle," she said at an appearance in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2006. "Ossie said he knew he had to conduct himself differently with skill and thought."

In 1998, the pair celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and an even longer association in show business with the publication of a dual autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

Davis died in February 2005. At his funeral, his widow sat near his coffin as former President Clinton led an array of famous mourners, including Harry Belafonte and Spike Lee.

Davis and Dee met in 1945 when she auditioned for the Broadway play Jeb, starring Davis (both were cast in it). In December 1948, on a day off from rehearsals from another play, The Smile of the World, Davis and Dee took a bus to New Jersey to get married. They already were so close that "it felt almost like an appointment we finally got around to keeping," Dee wrote in In This Life Together.

They shared billing in 11 stage productions and five movies during long parallel careers. Dee's fifth film, No Way Out with Sidney Poitier in 1950, was her husband's first. Along with film, stage and television, their richly honored careers extended to a radio show, The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour, that featutred a mix of black themes. Davis directed one of their joint film appearances, Countdown at Kusini (1976).

Lifelong Push for Social Justice
Like her husband, Dee was active in civil rights issues and efforts to promote the cause of blacks in the entertainment industry. As young performers, they found themselves caught up in the growing debate over social and racial justice in the United States. The couple's push for social justice was lifelong: In 1999, the couple were arrested while protesting the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, by New York City police.

They were friends with baseball star Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel – Dee played her, opposite Robinson himself, in the 1950 movie, The Jackie Robinson Story – and with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Dee and Davis served as masters of ceremonies for the historic 1963 March on Washington and she spoke at both the funerals for King and Malcolm X.

Among her best-known films was A Raisin in the Sun, in 1961, the classic play that explored racial discrimination and black frustration. On television, she was a leading cast member on soap operas, a rare sight for a black actress in the 1950s and '60s.

As she aged, her career did not ebb. Dee was the voice of wisdom and reason as Mother Sister in Spike Lee's 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, alongside her husband. She won an Emmy as supporting actress in a miniseries or special for 1990's Decoration Day.

She 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. Another honor came in 2007, after Davis's death, when the recording of their memoir won a Grammy for best spoken word album, a category that includes audio books.

The role that brought her an Oscar nomination at age 83 was as the mother of Denzel Washington's title character in Ridley Scott's crime drama American Gangster.

Wanted to Be an Actor
Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland to parents who soon split, Dee moved to Harlem as an infant with a brother and two sisters, living with relatives and neighbors. She graduated from highly competitive Hunter High School in 1939 and enrolled at Hunter College. "I wanted to be an actor but the chances for success did not look promising," she wrote in their joint autobiography.

But in 1940 she got a part in a Harlem production of a new play, On Strivers Row, which she later called "one giant step" to becoming a person and a performer.


In 1965, she became the first black woman to play lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. She won an Obie Award for the title role in Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena and a Drama Desk Award for her role in Wedding Band.

Most recently, Dee performed her one-woman stage show, My One Good Nerve: A Visit with Ruby Dee, in theaters across the country. The show was a compilation of some of the short stories, humor and poetry in her book of the same title.

She is survived by three children: Nora, Hasna and Guy, and seven grandchildren.

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http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/13/arts/ruby-dee-actress-dies-at-91.html?hpw&rref=obituaries
Ruby Dee, one of the most enduring actresses of theater and film, whose public profile and activist passions made her, along with her husband, Ossie Davis, a leading advocate for civil rights both in show business and in the wider world, died on Wednesday at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91.

Her daughter Nora Davis Day confirmed the death.

A diminutive, placid beauty with a sense of persistent social distress and a restless, probing intelligence, Ms. Dee was always a critical favorite but never really a leading lady. Her performing career began in the 1940s and continued well into the 21st century. But, more introspective than outgoing, she was perhaps more naturally suited to character roles than starring ones.

Her most successful central role was off Broadway, in the 1970 Athol Fugard drama, “Boesman and Lena,” about a pair of nomadic mixed-race South Africans, for which she received overwhelming praise. Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times, “Ruby Dee as Lena is giving one of the finest performances I have ever seen.”

Her most famous performance came more than a decade earlier, in 1959, in a supporting role in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark drama about the quotidian struggle of a black family in Chicago at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Ms. Dee played Ruth Younger, the wife of the main character, Walter Lee Younger, played by Sidney Poitier, and the daughter-in-law of the leading female character, the family matriarch, Lena (Claudia McNeil).

Ruth is a character with far too much on her plate: an overcrowded home, a troubled husband, a young son, an overbearing mother-in-law, a wearying job and an unwanted pregnancy, not to mention the shared burden of black people everywhere in a society skewed against them. Ms. Dee’s was a haunting portrait of a young woman whose desperation to maintain grace under pressure doesn’t keep her from being occasionally broken by it.

The play lasted 530 performances on Broadway and was reprised, with much of the cast intact, as a 1961 film. On screen, Edith Oliver wrote in The New Yorker, Ms. Dee was “even more impressive” than she was onstage.

“Is there a better young actress in America, or one who can make everything she does seem so effortless?” Ms. Oliver wrote.

Indeed, the loyal but worried loved one was a role Ms. Dee played frequently, in films like “The Jackie Robinson Story” (in which she played Rachel Robinson, wife of the pioneering black ballplayer, who starred as himself) and “No Way Out,” a tough racial drama in which she played the sister of a young prison doctor (Mr. Poitier).

Over the course of Ms. Dee’s career the lives of American blacks, both extraordinary and ordinary, belatedly emerged as rich subject matter for mainstream theater productions and films, and black performers went from being consigned to marginal and often belittling roles to starring in Hollywood mega-hits.

Ms. Dee herself went from being a disciple of Paul Robeson to a co-star of Mr. Poitier, a featured player in the films of Spike Lee and an Oscar nominee for a supporting role; in the 2007 film “American Gangster,” about a Harlem drug lord (Denzel Washington), she was the loving mother, who turned a blind eye to her son’s criminality.

Continue reading the main story
But Ms. Dee not only took part in that evolution; through her visibility in a wide range of projects, from classics onstage to contemporary film dramas to television soap operas, she helped bring it about.

In 1965, playing Cordelia in “King Lear” and Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew,” she was a theatrical pioneer, the first black woman to appear in major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. In 1968, she became the first black actress to be regularly featured on the titillating prime-time TV series “Peyton Place.”

She appeared in two of Mr. Lee’s earliest films, “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.” Meanwhile, she picketed Broadway theaters whose shows weren’t employing black actors and spoke out against film crews that employed few or no blacks.

Having made her name in films that addressed racial issues, she began seeking them out; she collaborated with the director Jules Dassin on the screenplay for “Up Tight,” 1968 adaptation of “The Informer,” Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel set in the aftermath of the Irish civil war that was also filmed by John Ford. Mr. Dassin and Ms. Dee updated and shifted the tale of betrayal among revolutionaries to 1960s Cleveland; Ms. Dee played a welfare mother who helped feed her family by resorting to prostitution.

Equally pertinently, she lent her voice and presence to the cause of racial equality outside show business. She was an active member of the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Ruby Ann Wallace, as she was known when she was born in Cleveland on Oct. 27, 1922, grew up in Harlem. In “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together” (1998), a joint autobiography she wrote with Mr. Davis, she said she entered Hunter College in 1940.

The third child of teenage parents, she was reared mostly by her father, Marshall Wallace, who became a waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and his second wife, the former Emma Amelia Benson, a college-educated teacher who was 13 years older than he was and whom Ms. Dee described as a strict but loving mother, a stickler for elocution and the person who introduced her to poetry, music and dance.

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She lived a long and meaningful life and achieved so much! My thoughts are with her family and loved ones. Rest in peace.
 
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