When Ruby Dee was in high school, she couldn't get a part in the drama club's upcoming production.
Nothing personal, the club's head explained: There were just no roles for maids.
"I never inquired again," Dee later wrote. "And I never went to see any plays there either."
A Harlem girl who wrote poetry but waded into a few street fights, Dee bounced back quickly. Over more than seven decades, she became one of the most highly regarded performers in American drama, even while struggling to carve out roles deeper than the eye-rolling maids and long-suffering, all-forgiving mother figures that were the industry standard for black actresses.
Dee, who with her late husband Ossie Davis emceed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington and was celebrated for her civil rights activism as well as for her powerful performances, died Wednesday at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91.
Her death from age-related causes was confirmed by her Los Angeles agent, Michael Livingston.
Dee started acting in 1940 with the American Negro Theatre, a troupe headquartered in the basement of a Harlem public library. She later attained national stature with the stage and screen versions of "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking play about three generations of a black family in Chicago struggling with the white community and one another.
The play — the first written by a black woman to reach Broadway — featured Dee as Ruth Younger, an exhausted housemaid and pregnant mother trying to keep her fractious clan together. In his 1959 review, the New York Herald Tribune's Walter Kerr praised Dee for her portrayal of a beleaguered woman "holding back the tartness that is always ready at the edge of her tongue."
"With a light shift of her voice, she commands a rebellious child to kiss her goodbye; with an unobtrusive gesture, she flicks an ironing board from a sofa so that a lounging and slightly fatuous college boy can relax in a tenement," Kerr wrote. "Miss Dee is lovely to watch, if you can catch her rustling from mood to mood as the bitterness around her grows."
After a lifetime in dozens of films that included "The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950) and the Spike Lee productions "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "Jungle Fever" (1991), she received her first Academy Award nomination in 2008 for her work in "American Gangster," the story of a high-rolling black drug lord in New York.
Nominated at age 83 in the supporting actress category, Dee was on screen for less than 10 minutes. Even so, she conveyed a powerful impression of barely controlled outrage, climaxing with a sharp slap to the face of her smooth, cop-killing son Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington.
"It's not far from my nature to whack," she told USA Today in 2008.
While Dee did not get the Oscar, she received numerous awards for her stage and television work.
In 1991 she won an Emmy for her performance in "Decoration Day" as the testy housekeeper for a retired Georgia judge played by James Garner. In 2000 she and Davis received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award — an occasion they used to lecture Hollywood about social responsibility.
"Why can't we image makers become peacemakers too?" Dee asked in accepting the award. "Why cannot we, in such a time as this, use all the magic of our vaunted powers to lift the pistol from the schoolboy's backpack?''
Dee, whose voice was described as silken in contrast to her husband's rich baritone, was the first African American woman to play major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. In 1965, she was Cordelia in "King Lear" and Katherina in "Taming of the Shrew."
But, as she told the Chicago Tribune in 1995, being a "first" was sometimes a bittersweet victory for African Americans.
"One should whisper that," she said. "One shouldn't be proud that the sum total of the body of the American mentality would permit such unfairness for so long."
Dee's activism started when she spoke out at a rally for a New York music teacher who killed herself after funding cuts eliminated her job. Dee, her student, was 11 at the time.
In 1953 she publicly protested the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the New York couple convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Dee was branded a "fellow traveler" — a Communist sympathizer — for supporting them.