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Ruby Dee left legacy of theater and activism [Commentary]

I was talking with friends recently about the passing this year of well-known people such as Dr. Maya Angelou and Amira Baraka when one brought up the loss last month of acclaimed actor, poet, playwright and Civil Rights activist Ruby Dee. He suggested I write something about Dee, who was 91 years old when she died. I wasn't feeling another obit after writing about Angelou because it's hard seeing those go who have had such a positive impact on people's lives worldwide.

But while watching Ruby Dee this week in Spike Lee's 1989 movie, "Do the Right Thing"; and in her 2007, Oscar-nominated role, as the mother of a mobster played by Denzel Washington, in "American Gangster," I had a change of heart. Dee's characteristic strong acting in those movies prompted me to think about all of the groundwork she and her husband, Ossie Davis (it's hard to mention one without the other), laid for other African American entertainers and their work as activists for various civil and human rights causes.

I also felt a need to write about her after talking to a few young people about her accomplishments since she passed. Some of them were clueless about Dee and I was surprised that several of these "well-educated" young folks — one was in her 20s and had a PhD — had never seen Dee's 1961 performance in "A Raisin in the Sun" opposite Sidney Poitier. Some knew her recent work, but did not know of the color barriers she broke on stage and television during segregation, or of her activist work.

The beautiful and talented Ruby Dee was starring on Broadway in the 1940s before they, or I, were born. She was a major force on stage and won an Obie and a Drama Desk Award and was honored at the Kennedy Center. She met her husband while working on Broadway in the mid-1940s and the two collaborated on numerous projects, including the Broadway production of "Purlie Victorious," and the Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour on radio.

In 1957 Dee starred with the great Nat King Cole in "St. Louis Blues," and in 1965, became the first African-American actress to perform lead roles with the American Shakespeare Festival. She was also the first African American to star on the popular "Peyton Place" soap opera in 1968.

Off stage and camera, Dee marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma and Birmingham and fought hard against lynchings in the South, apartheid in South Africa — career be damned. She and Davis were the MCs for the 1963 March on Washington and they both spoke at the funeral of their close friend, Malcolm X. The duo were arrested in1999 in protests following the shooting of African Amadou Diallo by a New York police officer.

After seeing Dee's movies, stage performances and her public broadcasting documentary gig, I finally met her in 1989 when she starred in the all-black cast of Tennessee Williams' play, "The Glass Menagerie," at Arena Stage. It was the opening night party and I was sitting in a dim corner waiting for my sister when the petite icon graciously asked if she could join me. I said of course and immediately told her how I enjoyed her performance as Amanda. She thought she'd done a terrible job and told me she'd forgotten lines and flubbed others but I assured her that no one noticed. She said I was just being kind, but my sister, Terri, agreed with me and told her Dee was fantastic.

Dee still insisted she had work to do on her role and said she felt a bit embarrassed when others spotted her in the corner and stopped to offer congratulations. But she was still upbeat, talking to us and others in her classic strong, sultry and slightly raspy voice. She sat with us the whole night, having drinks, laughing and not acting like a diva as we exchanged stories. She even gave my sister an extra hug when she discovered they were both Delta Sigma Thetas.

It was a great night and one that my sister and I reminisced about after we heard Dee had passed. I'll never forget that down-to-earth side of Dee and I hope those who are not familiar with her work will check out her films and read her books. She's a wonderful part of our history.

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