The Associated Press is reporting the death of Ruby Dee, the actress, activist, poet, playwright, journalist, and much more, who embodied the strong black woman on stage and off, amid decades of struggle for equality. Dee may have been best known for her performance in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, where she played an African-American housewife whose family is buckling under the strain of poverty and a racist system designed to cut them out of their share of the American dream. She co-starred with Sidney Poitier in the original 1959 Broadway production, and won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress when she reprised her role in the movie version two years later.
But Dee’s stature as an artist and inspirational figure was larger than any specific role. She and her husband, actor-director Ossie Davis, both began their careers at a time when it felt like a political act merely to insist on the dignity and importance of black characters. They were also high-profile political activists during the era of the civil rights movement, when the fight for social justice took on an element of street theater. (Dee was one of the most memorable speakers at the 1963 March on Washington.) Their political activities and creative work seemed to merge, in a fiery, exciting way that helped earn them the unofficial title of First Couple of the African-American Theater.
Dee joined the American Negro Theatre in 1941, and five years later starred in the company’s Broadway production of Anna Lucasta. That same year, she met Davis. The two married in 1949, during rehearsals for a play they were acting in together, The Smile Of The World. In 1950, she attracted attention with her performance as the wife of the man who broke the color barrier in baseball in The Jackie Robinson Story, starring Robinson as himself. In the years leading up to A Raisin In The Sun, she also appeared onscreen in Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target (1951), James Wong Howe’s Go Man Go (1954), Martin Ritt’s Edge Of The City (1957)—in which, as in Raisin, she played Sidney Poitier’s wife—and St. Louis Blues (1958), starring Nat “King” Cole as W. C. Handy. She also co-starred with Davis in Gone Are The Days! (1963), based on Davis’ play, Purlie Victorious.
In the 1960s, Dee appeared in the 1963 movie version of Jean Genet’s The Balcony; Jules Dassin’s Uptight (1968), a remake of Odd Man Out set among black revolutionaries, which she also co-produced; and on TV in episodes of The Fugitive, East Side/West Side, The Defenders, Peyton Place, and the historical recreation series The Great Adventure, playing Harriet Tubman. But her biggest and best opportunities tended to be onstage, where she played such roles as Katherine in The Taming Of The Shrew, Cordelia in King Lear, and Cassandra in The Oresteia, and had a personal triumph in the 1970 Circle In The Square production of Boesman And Lena, the third play by the South African writer Athol Fugard to be performed in the U.S. Her performance won her an Obie and a Drama Desk Award.
Dee’s later screen credits included Buck And The Preacher (1972), directed by and starring Poitier; Black Girl (1972), directed by Ossie Davis; the PBS production of the Lorraine Hansbury-derived revue To Be Young, Gifted, And Black (1972); Roots: The Next Generations (1979); the 1979 TV-movie adaptation of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings; Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982); as Mary Tyrone in a TV production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1982); a PBS version of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain (1984); The Atlanta Child Murders (1985); the 1988 TV miniseries Lincoln, with Sam Waterston in the big hat.
She also co-starred with her husband in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991); Alan Rudolph’s Love At Large (1990); as Zora Neale Hurston in Zora Is My Name! (1990); as Jackie Robinson’s mother this time, in The Court Martial Of Jackie Robinson (1990); Decoration Day (1990), for which she won an Emmy; an Emmy-nominated guest appearance in the TV sitcom Evening Shade, on which her husband was a regular cast member; the 1994 Stephen King miniseries The Stand (1994); Just Cause (1995); Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005); Steam (2007); and as Denzel Washington’s mother in American Gangster (2007), which garnered Dee her only Academy Award nomination.
Dee and Davis were inducted into the NAACP Image Award Hall Of Fame in 1989; were toasted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004; and given the American National Medal Of The Arts in 2004. The next year, shortly after Davis died, the two were given the National Civil Rights Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award. In 2007, she and Davis won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together.
Dee was famous for her roles in movies and plays such as The Jackie Robinson Story, A Raisin In The Sun, and Do The Right Thing, often appearing alongside her husband and fellow civil rights leader Ossie Davis. (Davis died in 2005.) Dee’s death was announced by her daughter, Nora Davis. She was 91.
We’re working on a longer look at Dee’s life and career that will be posted soon.