As one of the most revered African-American actresses of the past seven decades, Ruby Dee has died at the age of 91 of natural causes. According to a family spokes person, the legendary actress passed away peacefully on Thursday in her home in New Rochelle, New York surrounded by loved ones.
Dee along with her late husband, actor Ossie Davis who passed away in 2005, were held in the same regard as other acting couples of their time like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The couple appeared together in five films and 11 movies. Younger generations will remember the pair acting opposite each other in the 1989 Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing. Ruby Dee is listed as the oldest actress nominated for an Academy Award for her role in 2007’s American Gangster opposite Denzel Washington and directed by Ridley Scott. Other noted film roles include Rae Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story in 1950 and 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier. Over the course of her career, Ruby Dee has received a string of awards including an Emmy, a Grammy, a Screen Actors Guild award and with her husband, was decorated with the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts. The actress was also an author and penned a book of short stories and poems called My One Good Nerve and later turned it into a one-woman show that toured across the country.
Along with their work on stage and screen, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were very active in the early days of the civil rights movement and also worked to promote racial equality for blacks in the entertainment industry. The couple was actively involved in demonstrations with Malcolm X and were master of ceremonies during the historical march on Washington with Rev. Martin Luther King in 1963. Even into their years as senior citizens, both Davis and Dee were still sounding their voices over racial injustice and found themselves arrested back in 1999 during a protest rally in New York.
With her dominating contributions to the performing arts, stage actress Audra McDonald who received her record-breaking sixth Tony Award last Sunday acknowledged Ruby Dee along with a number of other African-American Broadway actresses for breaking barriers and who’s shoulders she stands on. In the early years of her career, Ruby Dee demonstrated in front of Broadway theaters and used her celebrity to bring attention to the lack of hiring of blacks behind the scenes. Ruby Dee also goes down in history was the first African-American actress to perform in the American Shakespeare Festival playing the principal character “Cordelia” in King Lear and “Kate” in The Taming of the Shrew, respectively. Ruby Dee was also the first black actress to have a recurring role on television in the 1960’s soap-opera Peyton Place.
Ruby Dee leaves behind a life and a legacy that, along with her late husband, goes down as a historic snapshot of American history and demonstrates what can be accomplished when the passions of artistry and activism merge.
By Hal Banfield