October 27, 1922 — June 11, 2014
Cultural icon and beloved actor Ruby Dee is no longer among us. She was best known for her film portrayal in 1961 of the achingly vulnerable, nonetheless strong-willed Ruth of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, sharing the screen with Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil and Dianna Sands, a role she’d originated on Broadway two year earlier.
From 1946 to 2013, she appeared in upwards of 150 screen and television roles, including star turns in American Gangster with Denzel Washington, Stephen King’s The Stand, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever with Wesley Snipes, her husband Ossie Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, along with then up-and-coming Halle Berry, Cat People with Nastassja Kinski, The Jackie Robinson Story and The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson. A devoted activist, she combined with her acting career a passion for progress in the fight for civil rights, also appearing on the 1960s drama Police Woman (NBC) as a character clearly based on Angela Davis.
During the ‘60s she helped African American actors and directors break into the business by lending her profile to such politically charged projects as Gone Are the Days and The Incident. She was instrumental in helping to change the face of American theater. After starting out as an apprentice in the American Negro Theater, working with Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Hilda Simms, she eventually co-founded the Coalition of Theatres of Color.
She performed in lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear, becoming the first Black actress to portray a lead role in the festival. Along with several stints on Broadway, including Checkmates with Washington and Paul Winfield, a growing number of stage appearances — Alice in Wonder (Harlem Theatre), Boesman and Lena (Circle in the Square Theatre), Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (Arena Stage) and many more — earned Ms. Dee the Obie Award and the Drama Desk Award in a body of work that won her national recognition, culminating the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors.
She was also a playwright (Take It from the Top!, Zora is My Name), screenwriter (Uptight), poet, journalist and Grammy Award-winning spoken word artist for With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together.
As well as pursuing activism in her profession, Ruby Dee personally involved herself in the struggle. She was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), NAACP, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Long a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, she was instrumental in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, gave the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral, received the New York Urban League’s Frederick Douglass Award and was arrested for protesting the shooting of Amadou Diallo by four New York City police officers.
Her husband, famed actor Ossie Davis, passed away in 2005. She is survived by daughters producer Nora Davis Day and author Hasna Muhammad Davis and son blues recording artist Guy Davis.
Ruby Dee, born Ruby Ann Wallace, died of natural causes on June 11 at her home in New Rochelle, NY at the age of 91.