A Rare Gem

Article excerpt

For more than six decades, activist and actress Ruby Dee has lit up the stage and screen with her portrayals of strong Black women

It felt more like spring than mid February as a crowd gathered inside the Macy's on West 34th Street in New York City. A rousing applause erupted and cameras flashed as she emerged - Ruby Dee, the legendary actress of Broadway, film and television. An activist, author and poet who became a Dreamgirl in her own right.

Dee, 82, walked with a strong pace and smiled warmly as admirers and well-wishers lined up to get a glimpse of one of the nation's most respected actresses. With great dark eyes set magnificently in an elliptical brown face, time indeed, had not withered her. Dee's petite frame belied an unmistakable inner strength that still has Hollywood calling more than a half century after her Broadway debut.

Elegant in a black coat over a simple light-colored blouse and black pants. Dee was calm despite the excitement that her presence emitted. As the featured author for Macy's commemoration of Black History Month, Dee had come to sign, Life Lit by Some Large Vision: Selected Speeches and Writings, a compilation of prose by her late husband, Ossie Davis, that was published last fall.

"This book that I've done of my husband's work is a collection of essays and eulogies and tributes that I've been collecting since we married," says Dee. "Love makes you do those things."

Dee says the title came from Davis' love of W.E.B. Du Bois, whom the actor always quoted.

"His favorite phrases [talk] about what do we do to be saved. We're looking to 'live life lit by some larger vision,'" says Dee. "So what we've done with this book is to address that quotation based on Du Bois' credo of 1904."

Dee will be forever linked to her husband of nearly 60 years. In fact, a week before the Macy's booksigning the couple received a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for the narration of their 1998 book With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. (It tied with President Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis).

"That's right, grandma with the Grammy," laughs Dee. "I was so thrilled. I feel like a rock star or something. This is my first. I always thought it was something just for musicians."

The Grammy was just the latest in a long list of honors and awards that Dee has racked up over her career which has spanned more than six decades.

Dee, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, was raised in Harlem. Her father worked as a Pullman porter and her stepmother was a schoolteacher. In 1941, Dee studied at the American Negro Theater, Her classmates included Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. She made her Broadway debut in the short-lived, nonmusical version of South Pacific in 1943. Dee graduated from New York City's Hunter College in 1945. Also that year, her marriage to Frankie Dee Brown, a midget whom she had married in 1941, ended.

In 1946, Dee met Ossie Davis during the Broadway production of Jeb. Though the play lasted only a week, it began a lifetime journey for the couple. Later that year, the two were cast in the Broadway play Anna Lucasta in which Dee played the title character. They married in 1948. Those early days, however, were a struggle.

"A lot of our years was made up performing for unions for $10 to $25 a performance," Dee says.

Between union jobs Dee and Davis took jobs in the post office and factories. When nothing else was available Dee scrubbed floors. Those early years of hovering on the brink of financial disaster left her deeply insecure about the future.

"No matter how well we do for one year," Dee once said, "I never feel secure. I can't throw food away. I can't waste. In the back of my mind is the thought that one day somebody will have to do a benefit for us to pay our hospital bills."

Despite the financial uncertainties of her career, Dee steadfastly refused to accept roles without dignity and substance. …