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Dee, Ruby

Ruby Dee

1924—

Actress, civil rights activist, writer

The actress and social activist Ruby Dee expressed her philosophy in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America: "You just try to do everything that comes up. Get up an hour earlier, stay up an hour later, make the time. Then you look back and say, ‘Well, that was a neat piece of juggling there—school, marriage, babies, career.’ The enthusiasms took me through the action, not the measuring of it or the reasonableness."

Dee's performing career has spanned more than sixty years and has included theater, radio, television, and movies. She and her husband, the late actor Ossie Davis, raised three children and were active in organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Congress of Racial Equality, as well as supporters of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Started Doing Theater in College

Ruby Ann Wallace was born on October 27, 1924, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents, Marshall and Emma Wallace, moved the family to New York City in search of better job opportunities, ultimately settling in Harlem. Emma Wallace, a disciplinarian who had studied under W. E. B. DuBois, was determined not to let her children become victims of the ghetto that the area was quickly becoming. Dee and her siblings studied music and literature. In the evening, under the guidance of their schoolteacher mother, they read aloud to each other from the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Wordsworth, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. The influence of this education became apparent early in Dee's life, for as a teenager she began submitting poetry to the New York Amsterdam News, a black weekly newspaper.

Her love of English and poetry motivated her to study the arts, especially the spoken arts. Dee's mother had been an elocutionist who, as a young girl, wanted to be in the theater. Fully realizing the value of a good education, Dee decided that the public schools of Harlem, where so many of the black girls were being "educated" to become domestics, were not for her. She underwent the rigorous academic testing required for admittance to Hunter High School, one of New York's first-rate schools that drew the brightest girls. The self-confidence and poise that Dee's mother had instilled in her helped Ruby adjust to her new environment, which was populated with white girls from more privileged backgrounds. Miss Peace, a black music teacher, provided encouragement to the young Ruby, telling her to go as far and as quickly as she could.

While in high school, Dee decided to pursue acting. In an interview with the New York Times, she related that this decision was made "one beautiful afternoon in high school when I read aloud from a play and my classmates applauded." After graduation she entered Hunter College. There, Dee joined the American Negro Theater (ANT) and adopted the onstage name Ruby Dee. The struggling theater had little money, so besides rehearsing their parts the troupe sold tickets door-to-door in Harlem and performed all the maintenance duties in the theater, which was located in a basement auditorium of the 135th Street Library. Dee found the work she did with the ANT to be a memorable part of her training. Other young actors who started at the ANT and eventually became famous include Harry Belafonte, Earl Hyman, and Sidney Poitier.

While still at Hunter College, Dee took a class in radio training offered through the American Theater Wing. This training led to a part in the radio serial Nora Drake. When she graduated from Hunter College in 1945, Dee took a job at an export house as a French and Spanish translator. To earn extra income, she worked in a factory painting designs on buttons. Dee knew, however, that the theater was to be her destiny.

Met Husband in the Theater

In 1946 Dee got her first Broadway role in Jeb, a drama about a returning black war hero. Ossie Davis, the actor in the title role, caught Dee's attention. After watching him do a scene in which he was tying a necktie, Dee experienced an awareness that she and Davis would share some type of connection. Critical reviews were good, but the play ran for only nine performances. Dee's intuition, however, proved to be true. She and Davis became close friends and worked together in the road company production of Anna Lucasta. Later, they played Evelyn and Stewart in Garson Kanin's Smile of the World and were married in December of 1948, during a break in rehearsals for that play.

Dee's first movie was Love in Syncopation, which was released in 1946. In 1950 she appeared in The Jackie Robinson Story as the legendary baseball player's wife. Also in that year she appeared in No Way Out, the story of a black doctor—played by Sidney Poitier—who is accused of causing the death of his white patient. The film was revolutionary for its time because it was the first American film in which blacks and whites confronted each other in a realistic way.

Over the next decade, Dee appeared in several plays and movies in which she was cast as the consummate wife or girlfriend—patient, always understanding, and all-forgiving. Such roles spurred at least one publication to refer to her as "the Negro June Allyson." A few parts helped Dee break free from this stereotyping. Of note is the role of the ebullient Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in Davis's 1961 play Purlie Victorious. In this satire on black-white relationships, Davis plays the preacher Purlie who, with Lutiebelle's assistance, helps outwit a white plantation owner. In 1963 this highly successful play was made into the movie Gone Are the Days and was later musicalized as Purlie.

At a Glance …

Born Ruby Ann Wallace on October 27, 1924 (some sources cite 1923 or 1927), in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Marshall Wallace and Emma (Benson) Wallace; married Ossie Davis (an actor), 1948; children: Nora, Guy, and LaVerne. Education: Hunter College, BA, 1945; studied with Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards at the Actors Workshop.

Career: American Negro Theater, Harlem, apprentice, 1941-44; actress, 1946—.

Awards: New York Urban League, Frederick Douglass Award, 1970; Obie Award, 1971; Drama Desk Award, 1971 and 1973; Actors Equity Association Paul Robeson Citation, 1975; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1975; Theater Hall of Fame, 1988; National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) Image Award, 1989 and 1999; Literary Guild Award, 1989; Emmy Award, 1991; St. Louis International Film Festival, Lifetime Achievement Award (with Ossie Davis), 1998; Screen Actors Guild, Life Achievement Award, 2001; Kennedy Center Honors, honoree, 2004; Harvard Foundation Humanitarian Award, 2007; Grammy Award for Spoken Word Performance, 2007; Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actress, 2007; NAACP Chairman's Award, 2008; AARP Movies for Grownups Award, Best Supporting Actress over 50.

Addresses: Home—44 Cortland Ave., New Rochelle, NY 10801.

Dee was again typecast as a long-suffering wife and daughter-in-law in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. She re-created her role as Ruth Younger in the 1963 film version of the play. Donald Bogle, in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, noted that before A Raisin in the Sun, Dee's roles made her appear to be "the typical woman born to be hurt" instead of a complete person. Bogle continued, "But in A Raisin in the Sun, Ruby Dee forged her inhibitions, her anemia, and her repressed and taut ache to convey beautifully the most searing kind of black torment."

Broke Free of Playing Typecast Roles

The one role Dee felt put an end to her stereotyped image was that of Lena in the 1970 production of Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena. Fugard, a white South African dramatist, portrayed the dilemma of South Africa's mixed race people who are rejected by both blacks and whites. In the play, Lena wanders the South African wilderness and ekes out a living with her brutish husband, Boesman, played by James Earl Jones. Dee told Patricia Bosworth of the New York Times that "Lena is the greatest role I've ever had." It was also her first theater role since 1966, and she was not sure she could do it. Her husband encouraged her, saying that the part could have been written for her even though Fugard had originally written the role of Lena with a white actress in mind.

Dee immediately felt a bond with Lena. "I relate to her particular reality," she told Bosworth, "because it is mine and every black woman's. I can understand the extent of her poverty and her filth and absolute subjugation…. On one level [Boesman and Lena] represent the universal struggle of black against white, man against woman. But they are also victims of something that is permeating an entire culture."

Dee finally realized that she was being offered a great part at a time when few, if any, good parts were written for black actresses. She revealed to Bosworth, "I have always been reticent about expressing myself totally in a role. But with Lena I am suddenly, gloriously free. I can't explain how this frail, tattered little character took me over and burrowed so deep inside me that my voice changed and I began to move differently…. [I am as] alive with her as I've never been on stage." Critics took note of Dee's performance. Clive Barnes wrote in his New York Times review of the play: "Ruby Dee as Lena is giving the finest performance I have ever seen…. Never for a moment do you think she is acting…. You have no sense of someone portraying a role…. her manner, her entire being have a quality of wholeness that is rarely encountered in the theater."

Beginning in the early 1960s, Dee made numerous appearances on television including roles in the Play of the Week and in television series such as The Fugitive, The Defenders, The Great Adventure, and The Nurses. On Peyton Place, where in 1968-69 she played Alma Miles, the wife of a neurosurgeon, she was the first black actress to be featured on the widely watched nighttime serial. Her performance in an episode of the series East Side/West Side earned her an Emmy nomination. In 1990 Dee's performance in Decoration Day won her an Emmy.

Became an Activist

Dee and Davis collaborated on several projects designed to promote black heritage in general and other black artists in particular. In 1974 they produced The Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Story Hour, which appeared on more than sixty stations on the National Black Network. In conjunction with the Public Broadcasting System, they produced the series With Ossie and Ruby in 1981. It was work that Dee found particularly satisfying because she got to travel around the country talking to authors and others who could put the black experience in perspective. She believed the series made black people look at themselves outside of the problems of racism.

Issues of equality and civil rights were long a concern of Dee's. Her activism could be traced back to when she was eleven years old, and her music teacher lost her job when funds for the Federal Music Program were cut. The teacher, terrified that she could not find another job in the Depression-ridden country, committed suicide. At a meeting following the teacher's death, Adam Clayton Powell was the principal speaker, and Dee was chosen to speak in favor of restoring the music program. Several years would pass before Dee became actively involved in civil rights.

The cause that brought Dee's activism to the forefront was the death sentence that was handed down against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. The Rosenbergs had been convicted on espionage charges, and Dee protested their planned executions in several interviews with the press. Some accused her of being exploited by the communists; others were convinced she was a card-carrying member of the party. Dee's notoriety for denouncing the U.S. government's decision to execute the Jewish Rosenbergs eventually parlayed itself into a role playing the Defending Angel in the stage adaptation of the Yiddish folk story The World of Sholem Aleichem. This experience helped Dee realize that racism and discrimination were not the exclusive provinces of black people—other races and cultures experienced it also. She was inspired by these events to make a firm commitment to social activism.

Future events solidified this commitment. In September of 1963 a bomb was thrown into a Birmingham, Alabama, church. The bomb killed four young black girls as they sat in their Sunday school class. People throughout the country were outraged by this senseless murder. Dee and Davis, along with other artists, formed the Association of Artists for Freedom. The group launched a successful boycott against extravagant Christmas spending and urged people to donate the money to various civil rights groups. Dee and Davis were involved in and supported several other civil rights protests and causes, including Martin Luther King's March on Washington. In 1970 the New York Urban League honored them with the Frederick Douglass Award, a medallion presented each year for distinguished leadership toward equal opportunity.

By establishing the Ruby Dee Scholarship in Dramatic Art, Dee put into action her commitment to help others. The scholarship is awarded to talented young black women who want to become established in the acting profession. Both she and Davis donated money and countless hours of time to causes in which they believed. They founded the Institute of New Cinema Artists as a way to train chosen young people for film and television jobs. Their Recording Industry Training Program helps develop jobs for disadvantaged youths interested in the music industry.

Dee also used her talent to make recordings for the blind and to narrate videocassettes that address issues of race relations. She reinterpreted West African folktales for children and published them as Two Ways to Count to Ten: A Liberian Folktale and Tower to Heaven. Dee returned to poetry, her early love, to edit Glowchild, and Other Poems and to collect her own poems and short stories in My One Good Nerve: Rhythms, Rhymes, Reasons.

Returned to Film with Spike Lee

Dee's remarkable acting talent has endured over the years. She continued to appear in theater, movies, and television into the 2000s. In 1990 Dee appeared in the television movie The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson, playing Mallie, Robinson's mother. Writing in New York, John Leonard lamented that the movie gave Dee too little to do but commended her for "deliver[ing] one fine line" as she reprimanded her son, who was about to sabotage his courtship with Rachel. With fervor Dee, in the role of Mallie, stated: "I didn't raise my boys to have sharecropper minds!" Leonard attributed the conviction with which Dee played her part to the fact that she played the role of Rachel herself forty years earlier.

The director Spike Lee cast Dee in the role of Mother Sister—and Davis in the role of Da Mayor—for his controversial 1989 film Do the Right Thing, a role that won her an NAACP Image Award. As Mother Sister, Dee played a widow who lives in a brownstone and spends her time watching the neighborhood through a ground-floor window. In the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann described Dee as "that fine actress with an unfulfilled career in white America" and her role in Lee's movie "as a sort of neighborhood Delphic oracle." Davis played a beer-drinking street philosopher who was in love with Mother Sister.

In the movie, as racial tension rose in the neighborhood, Mother Sister and Da Mayor were unable to do anything to defuse it. According to Terrence Rafferty in the New Yorker, these two characters "stand for the older generation, whose cynical, ‘realistic’ attitude toward living in a white society may have kept them from finding ways out of their poverty but may also have helped keep them alive." Lee also cast the pair as the parents of the main character in Jungle Fever.

Even though she was in her early eighties, Dee played the role of Nanny in the 2005 television production of Zora Neale Hurston's classic work Their Eyes Were Watching God, to great critical acclaim.

Mourned the Loss of Her Husband

In 1988 Ebony featured Dee and Davis as one of "Three Great Love Stories." Explaining the success of their long marriage, Dee told Ebony: "The ratio of the good times to the bad times is better than 50-50, and that helps a lot…. We shared a great deal in common; we didn't have any distractions as to where we stood in society. We were black activists. We had a common understanding." Davis added, "We believe in honesty. We believe in simplicity…. We believe in love. We believe in the family. We believe in black history, and we believe heavily in involvement."

In February of 2005 Davis passed away in Miami Beach. Dee, who was working on a film in New Zealand at the time, went home to make funeral arrangements for her husband of fifty-seven years, but was back on the set just two weeks later. As Dee told Joshua Alston of Newsweek, Davis "wasn't the grieving type. He always said that he didn't want me to live like I could stop him from dying. He could be brutal in his logic." Nonetheless, she felt Davis's loss profoundly. "We had good times together, and I miss all that," Dee admitted to her grandson, Muta'Ali Muhammad, in an interview for the CinemATL Web site. "I still talk to him because I think that he still listens, and he is challenging me."

In 2007, more than two years after Davis's death, his and Dee's audiobook reading of their 1998 memoir, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together received a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album. More accolades followed later in the year after Dee's performance in American Gangster. In the film, Dee portrayed the mother of real-life New York gangster Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington. For the role, Dee relied on her memories growing up in Harlem to bring the part to life. Critics were impressed by the intensity she brought to the screen opposite Washington. "The way she demands honesty from Lucas is so withering, Dee effectively forces Washington, perhaps for the first time, to experience life as a toothpick," enthused Alston in Newsweek.

Dee's performance as Mama Lucas won her a second Screen Actors Guild Award—her first had been a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001—and the first Academy Award nomination of her career. She was the second-oldest person to be nominated for an acting Oscar. As of 2008, Dee showed no sign of slowing down in her mid-eighties, continuing to act, write, and advocate for the causes in which she believed.

Selected works

Films

Love in Syncopation, 1946.

The Jackie Robinson Story, 1950.

No Way Out, 1950.

Go, Man, Go!, 1954.

Virgin Island, 1958.

Take a Giant Step, 1959.

A Raisin in the Sun, 1961.

Gone Are the Days, 1963.

The Incident, 1967.

Black Girl, 1972.

Do the Right Thing, 1989.

Jungle Fever, 1991.

A Simple Wish, 1997.

Baby Geniuses, 1999.

Baby of the Family, 2002.

Naming Number Two, 2006.

The Way Back Home, 2006.

All about Us, 2007.

American Gangster, 2007.

Steam, 2007.

Plays

Jeb, 1946.

Anna Lucasta, 1946.

The World of Sholom Aleichem, 1953.

A Raisin in the Sun, 1959.

Purlie Victorious, 1961.

Boesman and Lena, 1970.

Checkmates, 1988.

(And author) My One Good Nerve, 1999.

Television

East Side/West Side, 1963.

The Nurses, 1963.

Peyton Place, 1968-69.

Roots: The Next Generations, 1979.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1979.

(And coproducer) Ossie and Ruby!, 1980.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1982.

The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson, 1990.

Decoration Day, 1990.

The Stand, 1994.

Mr. and Mrs. Loving, 1996.

Promised Land, 1998.

Finding Buck McHenry, 2000.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, 2005.

Writings

(With Jules Dassin and Julian Mayfield) Up Tight (screenplay; adapted from Liam O'Flaherty's novel The Informer), Paramount, 1968.

(Editor) Glowchild, and Other Poems, Third Press, 1972.

Twin-Bit Gardens (musical play; also known as Take It From the Top), produced Off-Broadway at New Federal Theater, 1979.

My One Good Nerve: Rhythms, Rhymes, Reasons, Third World Press, 1986.

(Reteller) Two Ways to Count to Ten: A Liberian Folktale (juvenile), Holt, 1988.

Zora Is My Name (screenplay), American Playhouse, Public Broadcasting System, 1990.

(Reteller) Tower to Heaven (juvenile), Holt, 1991.

(With Ossie Davis) With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (memoir), Morrow, 1998.

My One Good Nerve (memoir), J. Wiley and Sons, 1999.

Boscoe and the Devil (musical play, adapted from the short story "How John Boscoe Outsung the Devil," by Arthur P. Davis), performed at the Ensemble Studio Theater, 2008.

Sources

Books

Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland, 1988.

Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Viking, 1973.

Clark Hine, Darlene, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, editors, Black Women in America, Carlson, 1993.

Fax, Elton C., Contemporary Black Leaders, Dodd, 1970.

Lanker, Brian, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1989.

Mapp, Edward, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, Scarecrow Press, 1990.

Salley, Columbus, editor, The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African-Americans, Past and Present, Citadel Press, 1993.

Periodicals

CinemATL, June 1, 2006.

Commonweal, January 13, 1989, p. 21; July 14, 1989, p. 403.

Cosmopolitan, August 1991, p. 28.

Ebony, February 1988, p. 152.

Essence, May 1987, p. 28.

Jet, December 5, 1988, p. 55; March 26, 2001.

Library Journal, October 1, 1991, p. 153; January 1992, p. 198.

Nation, July 17, 1989, p. 98.

National Review, August 4, 1989, p. 45.

New Republic, July 3, 1989, p. 24.

Newsweek, July 3, 1989, p. 64; February 25, 2008.

New York, August 22, 1988, p. 142; October 22, 1990, p. 136; November 26, 1990, p. 165.

New Yorker, July 24, 1989, p. 78.

New York Times, June 23, 1970; July 12, 1970; February 3, 2008.

People, July 3, 1989, p. 13; March 14, 2005.

Publishers Weekly, June 10, 1988, p. 80; May 17, 1991, p. 63.

School Library Journal, October 1990, p. 76; July 1991, p. 67; March 1992, p. 196.

Washington Post, December 5, 2004.

Online

Turner, Miki, "It's Time for Ruby Dee to Win an Oscar," MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21888461/ (accessed May 20, 2008).

—Debra G. Harroun, Tom Pendergast,
and Derek Jacques

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Dee, Ruby 1924–

Dee, Ruby 1924–

PERSONAL

Original name, Ruby Ann Wallace, October 27, 1924, in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Marshall Edward (a cook; some sources say a road porter) and Emma (a teacher; maiden name, Benson) Wallace; married Frank Dee (a distillery promoter; divorced); married Ossie Davis (an actor, writer, producer, and director), December 9, 1948 (died, February 4, 2005); children: (second marriage) Nora, LaVerne (also known as Hasna), Guy. Education: Hunter College, B.A., 1945; studied and apprenticed at American Negro Theatre, 1941-44; also studied with Morris Carnovsky, 1958-60, and Actors Workshop with Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards. Avocational Interests: Painting, music, sewing.

Addresses:

Agent—Marc Bass Agency, Inc., 9171 Wilshire Blvd., 3rd Floor, Suite 380, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

Career:

Actress, director, and writer. Appeared at Arena Stage, Washington, DC, 1987-88; Emmalyn II Productions, founder with husband, Ossie Davis.

Member:

Actors' Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Negro American Labor Council, Hunter Alumnae Association of Artists for Freedom, Ladies Auxiliary to Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (honorary member), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, CORE, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Awards, Honors:

National Board of Review Award, best supporting actress, 1961, for A Raisin in the Sun; Emmy Award nomination, best actress, 1964, for East Side/West Side; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding single performance by an actress in a leading role, 1964, for The Nurses; Frederick Douglass Award of the Urban League (with Ossie Davis), 1970; Obie Award, Village Voice, and Drama Desk Award, 1971, both for Boseman and Lena; Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) Martin Luther King Jr. Award, Rainbow Coalition, 1972; Drama Desk Award, 1973, for The Wedding Band; Paul Robeson Citation (with Davis), for outstanding creative contributions in the performing arts and in society at large, Actors' Equity Association, 1975; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding supporting actress in a limited series or special, 1979, for Roots: The Next Generation; CableACE Award, actress in a dramatic presentation, 1983, for Long Day's Journey into Night; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or special, 1988, for Lincoln; inductee, Theatre Hall of Fame, 1988; Image Award, best performance by an actress, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1989, for Do the Right Thing; Literary Guild Award, 1989, for Two Ways to Count to Ten; Image Award (with Davis), hall of fame inductee, NAACP, 1989; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding guest actress in a drama series, 1990, for China Beach; Monarch Award, 1990; State University of New York, L.H.D., 1990; Crystal Award, Women in Film, 1991; Emmy Award, outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or a special, 1991, for Decoration Day; Sony Master Innovator for Film Award, 1991; Spelman College, D.F.A., 1991; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding guest actress in a comedy series, 1993, for Evening Shade; Silver Circle Award, National Academy of Television Arts and Science, 1994; Daytime Emmy Award nomination, outstanding performer in an animated program, 1995, for Whitewash; Presidential Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Art (with Davis), 1995; Image Award nomination, outstanding lead actress in a television movie, miniseries, or drama special, NAACP, 1997, for Captive Heart: The James Mink Story; Lifetime Achievement Award (with Davis), St. Louis International Film Festival, 1998; Image Award, outstanding supporting actress in a drama series, NAACP, 1999, for Promised Land; Image Award nomination, outstanding actress in a television movie, miniseries, or dramatic special, NAACP, 2000, for Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years; Image Award nomination, outstanding performance in a youth or children's series or special, NAACP, 2001, Daytime Emmy Award nominations, outstanding performer in an animated program, 2001, 2003, all for Little Bill; Life Achievement Award, Screen Actors Guild Awards, 2001; Audelco Award, best actress, 2001, Lucille Lortel Award nomination, outstanding actress, 2002, both for Saint Lucy's Eyes; Edith Oliver Award for Sustained Excellence, Lucille Lortel Awards, 2002; Audie Award nomination (with Davis), multi-voiced performance, Audio Publishers Association, 2003, for Their Eyes Were Watching God; Kennedy Center Honors, 2004; Lifetime Achievement Award, Method Fest, 2006; Jury Award, best actress, Atlanta Film Festival, 2006, for No. 2; Grammy Award, best spoken word album, 2007, for With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together; Satellite Award nomination, best actress in a supporting role, drama, Satellite Awards, 2007, Screen Actors Guild Award, outstanding performance by a female actor in a supporting role, Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, Academy Award nomination, best performance by an actress in a supporting role, and Image Award nomination, outstanding supporting actress in a motion picture, all 2008, for American Gangster; honorary doctorates from Fairfield University, Iona College, and Virginia State University.

CREDITS

Stage Appearances:

Natural Man, American Negro Theatre, New York City, 1941.

Starlight, American Negro Theatre, 1942.

Three's a Family, American Negro Theatre, 1943.

(Broadway debut) A native, South Pacific (drama), Cort Theatre, New York City, 1943.

Ruth, Walk Hard, American Negro Theatre, 1944.

Libby George, Jeb, Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, 1946.

Title role, Anna Lucasta, Mansfield Theatre, New York City, 1946.

Arsenic & Old Lace, 1946.

John Loves Mary, 1946.

Marcy, A Long Way from Home, Maxine Elliot's Theatre, New York City, 1948.

Mrs. Ellen McClellan, The Washington Years, American Negro Theatre, 1948.

Evelyn, The Smile of the World, Lyceum Theatre, New York City, 1949.

Defending Angel, The World of Sholom Aleichem, Barbizon Plaza Theatre, New York City, 1953-54.

Ruth Younger, A Raisin in the Sun, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City, 1959.

Luttiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, Purlie Victorious, Cort Theatre, 1961.

Cordelia, King Lear, American Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, CT, 1965.

Kate, The Taming of the Shrew, American Shakespeare Festival, 1965.

The Talking Skull, White Barn Theatre, Westport, CT, 1965.

Julia Augustine, The Wedding Band, Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, Ann Arbor, MI, 1966.

Cassandra, Agamemnon, Ypsilanti Greek Theatre, Ypsilanti, MI, 1966.

Iris, The Birds, Ypsilanti Greek Theatre, 1966.

Oresteia, Ypsilanti Greek Theatre, 1966.

Lena, Boseman and Lena, Circle in the Square, New York City, 1970-71.

The Imaginary Invalid, Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, PA, 1971.

Julia Augustine, The Wedding Band, New York Shakespeare Festival, Public Theatre, New York City, 1972.

Gertrude, Hamlet, New York Shakespeare Festival, Delacorte Theatre, 1975.

Lead role, Twin-Bit Gardens (musical play; also known as Take It From the Top), New Federal Theatre, New York City, 1979.

Mattie Cooper, Checkmates, 46th Street Theatre, New York City, 1988.

Amanda Wingfield, The Glass Menagerie, Kreeger Theatre, Washington, DC, 1989.

Flying West, 1994.

Two Hahs-Hahs and a Homeboy, 1995.

My One Good Nerve: A Visit with Ruby Dee, Danny and Sylvia Kaye Playhouse, New York City, 1998, then Schomburg Center at the Langston Hughes Theatre, New York City, 2000.

Saint Lucy's Eyes, Women's Project Theatre, then Cherry Lane Theatre, both New York City, 2001.

A Last Dance for Sybil, New Federal Theatre, 2002.

Major Tours:

Title role, Anna Lucasta, U.S. cities, 1944.

(With Davis) A Treasury of Negro World Writing (poetry readings), U.S. cities, 1964.

Stage Director:

Twin-Bit Gardens (also known as Take It From the Top), New Federal Theatre, New York City, 1979.

Zora Is My Name!, Howard University, Washington, DC, 1983.

Film Appearances:

What a Guy, 1939.

That Man of Mine, 1947.

Janie, The Fight Never Ends, 1949.

Rachel Robinson, The Jackie Robinson Story, Eagle Lion, 1950.

Connie Brooks, No Way Out, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950.

Rachel, slave maid, The Tall Target (also known as The Man on the Train), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1951.

Irma Jackson, Go, Man, Go!, United Artists, 1954.

(Uncredited) Mrs. Ashlow, The Great American Pastime, 1956.

Lucy Tyler, Edge of the City (also known as A Man Is Ten Feet Tall), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1957.

Elizabeth, St. Louis Blues, Paramount, 1958.

Christine the Maid, Taking a Giant Step, Shelia/United Artists, 1959.

Ruth, Virgin Island (also known as Our Virgin Island), Countryman/Films-. Around the World, 1960.

Ruth Younger, A Raisin in the Sun, Paman-Doris/Columbia, 1961.

Thief, The Balcony, City Film Corporation/Continental, 1963.

Luttiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, Gone Are the Days (also known as The Man from C.O.T.T.O.N. and Purlie Victorious), Hammer, 1963.

Laurie, Uptight (also known as Up Tight!), Marluikin/Paramount, 1965.

Joan Robinson, The Incident, Moned/Fox, 1968.

Narrator, King: A Filmed RecordMontgomery to Memphis, 1970.

Netta's mother, Black Girl, Cinerama, 1972.

Ruth, Buck and the Preacher, Columbia, 1972.

(Uncredited) Herself, Wattstax, 1973.

Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation of Drama, 1975.

Leah Matanzina, Countdown at Kusini, Tan International Ltd. of Nigeria-Gipp Productions/Columbia, 1976.

The Torture of Mothers, 1980.

Female, Cat People, RKO, 1982.

Fantastic freak, Wild Style, 1982.

Mother Sister, Do the Right Thing, Universal, 1989.

Corrine Dart, Love at Large, 1990.

Lucinda Purify, Jungle Fever, Universal, 1991.

Narrator, Color Adjustment (also known as Color Adjustment: Blacks in Prime Time), 1991.

Old Lucinda, Jazztime Tale, 1992.

Rachel, Cop & ½ (also known as Cop and a Half), 1993.

Evangeline Ferguson, Just Cause, 1995.

Jennie, Tuesday Morning Ride, 1995.

Hortense, A Simple Wish (also known as The Fairy Godmother), 1997.

Voice of narrator, A Time to Dance: The Life and Work of Norma Canner, 1998.

Margo, Baby Geniuses, Columbia TriStar/Sony Pictures Entertainment, 1999.

Voice of narrator, The Unfinished Journey (documentary), 1999.

Baby of the Family, 2002.

Reader, Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives (documentary), 2003.

Herself, Beah: A Black Woman Speaks (documentary), Women Make Movies, 2003.

Herself, The History Makers (documentary), Image Entertainment, 2005.

Ms. Nay Nay, Dream Street, 2005.

Nanna Maria, No. 2 (also known as Naming Number Two), Miramax, 2006.

Maude, The Way Back Home, 2006.

Ms. Ella, All about Us, 2007.

Doris, Steam, 2007.

Mama Lucas, American Gangster, 2007.

Inez Hightower, Flying over Purgatory, 2007.

Film Work:

Uptight, Paramount, 1968.

Television Appearances; Series:

Martha Frazier, The Guiding Light (also known as Guiding Light), CBS, 1967.

Alma Miles, Peyton Place, ABC, 1968-69.

Watch Your Mouth, PBS, 1978.

With Ossie and Ruby (also known as Ossie and Ruby!), National Black Network, 1980-81.

Estelle Williams, Middle Ages, 1992.

Voice of Alice the Great, Little Bill (animated), Nickelodeon, 1999—.

Television Appearances; Miniseries:

Queen Haley, Roots: The Next Generation, ABC, 1979.

Faye Williams, The Atlanta Child Murders, CBS, 1985.

Keckley, Gore Vidal's "Lincoln" (also known as Lincoln), NBC, 1988.

Dorothy Stone, Sidney Sheldon's "Windmills of the Gods" (also known as Windmills of the Gods), CBS, 1988.

Mother Abigail, The Stand (also known as Stephen King's "The Stand"), ABC, 1994.

Elsie Claviere, Feast of All Saints (also known as Anne Rice's "Feast of All Saints"), Showtime, 2001.

Television Appearances; Movies:

Lucinda, Deadlock, NBC, 1969.

Sue Anne Lucas, The Sheriff, ABC, 1971.

Ruth Campanella, It's Good to Be Alive, CBS, 1974.

Grandmother Baxter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, CBS, 1979.

Irene Whitfield, All God's Children, ABC, 1980.

Mary Tyrone, Long Day's Journey into Night, ABC Cable, 1983.

Mrs. Grimes, Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1984.

Rowena, Finch's housekeeper, Decoration Day, NBC, 1990.

Mallie Robinson, Jackie's mother, The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson, 1990.

Mrs. Lydia Wilson, The Ernest Green Story, Disney Channel, 1993.

Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, PBS, 1993.

Indigo, Captive Heart: The James Mink Story, CBS, 1996.

Sophia, Mr. & Mrs. Loving, Showtime, 1996.

Mrs. Mitchell, "The Badge," The Wall, Showtime, 1998.

Mommit Porter, Passing Glory, TNT, 1999.

Annie Elizabeth "Bessie" Delany, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years (also known as Having Our Say), CBS, 1999.

Grandmother, A Storm in Summer, Showtime, 2000.

Mrs. Henry, Finding Buck McHenry, Showtime, 2000.

Emelda West, Taking Back Our Town, Lifetime, 2001.

Nanny, Their Eyes Were Watching God (also known as Oprah Winfrey Presents "Their Eyes Were Watching God"), ABC, 2005.

Television Appearances; Specials:

The First Year, 1946.

Dr. Bianca Pearson, staff member, Chelsea D.H.O., 1973.

Host, Windows on Women, 1985.

(With Davis) Host, Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum, PBS, 1986.

Narrator, Treemonisha, 1986.

Host ("Ossie & Ruby") and Mary Terrell, A Letter to Booker T., 1987.

Alice Weatherscott, Alice in Wonder, 1987.

Hattie Perkins, Crazy Hattie Enters the Ice Age, 1987.

Johnson's mother, Crown Dick, 1987.

Herself, Making "Do the Right Thing," 1989.

Narrator and Zora Neale Hurston, "Zora Is My Name!," American Playhouse, PBS, 1990.

Narrator, Nigerian Art: Kindred Spirits, 1990.

The 22nd Annual NAACP Image Awards, 1990.

Diamonds on the Silver Screen, 1992.

Guiding Light: The Primetime Special, 1992.

The 24th Annual NAACP Image Awards, 1992.

Presenter, The 48th Annual Tony Awards, 1994.

Narrator, After Goodbye: An AIDS Story, PBS, 1994.

Voice of Mrs. Calloway, grandmother, Whitewash, HBO, 1994.

Homeward Bound, 1994.

Narrator, Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul, PBS, 1995.

Narrator, Mississippi, America, PBS, 1996.

"Tuesday Morning Ride," Stories from the Edge, 1996.

Sidney Poitier: The Defiant One, Arts and Entertainment, 1997.

(Uncredited) Sports on the Silver Screen, 1997.

An Evening of Stars: A Celebration of Educational Excellence Benefitting the United Negro College of Fund, Black Entertainment Television and syndicated, 1998.

Narrator, God's Gonna Trouble the Water, PBS, 1998.

NYTV: By the People Who Made It, PBS, 1998.

Narrator, The Rise of Christianity: The First Thousand Years, Arts and Entertainment, 1998.

Small Steps, Big Strides: The Black Experience in Hollywood, AMC, 1998.

America's Millennium, CBS, 1999.

Amsterdam News: Stories of Black New York, NBC, 2000.

Voice of Grandma, The Steadfast Tin Soldier: An Animated Special from the "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child" Series (animated), HBO, 2000.

Narrator, Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore, PBS, 2001.

Intimate Portrait: Rosa Parks, Lifetime, 2001.

The 7th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, TNT, 2001.

Narrator, Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years, Arts and Entertainment, 2001.

Civil Rights Heroes, Arts and Entertainment, 2001.

Inside TV Land: African Americans in Television, TV Land, 2002.

Hughes' Dream Harlem, Black Starz, 2002.

The 2003 Trumpet Awards, TBS, 2003.

Honoree, The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, CBS, 2004.

The Black Movie Awards, TNT, 2005.

An Evening of Stars: Tribute to Stevie Wonder, 2006.

The 37th Annual NAACP Image Awards, Fox, 2006.

Legends Ball (also known as Oprah Winfrey's "Legends Ball"), ABC, 2006.

The 2006 Black Movie Awards (also known as The 2006 Black Movie Awards—A Celebration of Black Cinema: Past, Present & Future), 2006.

Also appeared in "Today Is Ours," The CBS Festival of Lively Arts for Young People, CBS.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

"Actor's Choice," Camera Three, CBS, 1960.

Lila, "Seven Times Monday," Play of the Week, WNTA, 1960.

"Black Monday," Play of the Week, WNTA, 1961.

Herself, "The Beauty of a Woman," The DuPont Show of the Week, 1962.

Laura, "Decision in the Ring," The Fugitive, ABC, 1963.

Harriet Tubman, "Go Down Moses," The Great Adventure, CBS, 1963.

Irene Claytong, "Impact of an Execution," Alcoa Premiere, 1963.

Jenny Bishop, "Express Stop from Lenox Avenue," The Nurses (also known as The Doctors and the Nurses), 1963.

Marilyn Marsden, "No Hiding Place," East Side/West Side, CBS, 1964.

The Eternal Light, NBC, 1964.

Catherine Collins, "The Sworn Twelve," The Defenders, CBS, 1965.

"Slavery," The History of the Negro People, NET, 1965.

Vicky Kingsbury, "Neighbors," Armchair Theatre, ABC (Manchester, England), 1966.

The Merv Griffin Show, 1968.

The Sheriff, ABC, 1971.

"To Be Young, Gifted and Black," NET Playhouse, PBS, 1972.

Jan Lennox, "The Window That Wasn't," Tenafly, 1973.

Cora Sanders, "Target Black," Police Woman, NBC, 1975.

"Great Performances' 10th Anniversary Celebration," Great Performances, PBS, 1982.

Voice of herself, "Simon's Book," Reading Rainbow, PBS, 1984.

Eleanor Simpson, "Personal Demons," Spenser: For Hire, CBS, 1987.

Narrator, "Jazztime Tale," Long Ago and Far Away, 1989.

Ruby, "Skylark," China Beach, 1990.

Viola Watkins, "Wham, Bam, Thank You, Mammy," The Golden Girls, CBS, 1990.

Aurelia Danforth, Evening Shade, 1992.

Narrator, "Tar Beach," Reading Rainbow, PBS, 1992.

Aurelia Danforth, "They Can't Take That Away From," Evening Shade, CBS, 1993.

Narrator, "Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul," American Masters, PBS, 1995.

Narrator, "Porgy and Bess: An American Voice," Great Performances, PBS, 1998.

Alicia, "Baptism of Fire," Promised Land (also known as Home of the Brave), CBS, 1998.

Mattie, "Ol' Betsy," Cosby, CBS, 1999.

LaBelle, "The Christmas Gift," Touched by an Angel, CBS, 1999.

Voice of Louise, Fatherhood, Nickelodeon, 2003.

Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry (also known as Def Poetry and Def Poetry Jam), HBO, 2004.

Herself, "Amanda," Character Studies, PBS, 2005.

Herself, "Ruth," Character Studies, PBS, 2005.

Mary Wilson, "Empty Eyes," CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (also known as C.S.I., CSI: Las Vegas, and Les Experts), CBS, 2007.

Also appeared as herself, "The Films of Spike Lee," The Directors, Encore; Grace Gilmore, "The Bitter Cup," Frontiers of Faith.

Television Work; Specials:

Executive producer, Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum, PBS, 1986.

Producer and director, A Letter to Booker T., 1987.

Producer, Alice in Wonder, 1987.

Producer, Crazy Hattie Enters the Ice Age, 1987.

Executive producer, Crown Dick, 1987.

Producer, Mama, 1987.

Producer and director, My Man Bovanne, 1987.

Producer, Refrigerator, 1987.

Producer and director, The 85-Year-Old Swinger, 1987.

Also worked as coproducer, "Today Is Ours," The CBS Festival of Lively Arts for Young People, CBS; (with Ossie Davis and Bill Moyers) A Walk Through the 20th Century, CBS.

Radio Appearances:

This Is Norah Drake, CBS, 1955.

The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour, National Black Network, 1974-78.

RECORDINGS

Taped Readings:

(With Ossie Davis) The Poetry of Langston Hughes, Caedmon, 1969.

(With Davis) Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folktales from the Gulf States, Harper-Audio, 2001.

(With Davis) Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Harper, 2001.

Badger's Parting Gifts, GPN, 2001.

(With Davis) With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, 2006.

Also recorded poems and stories.

Videos:

(With Davis) Hands Upon the Heart, 1991.

Hands Upon the Heart II, 1993.

Narrator, M and M Smith: For Posterity's Sake, Reed Publishing, 1997.

Ann Grifalconi's Tiny's Hat, Spoken Arts, 2000.

The Ernest Green Story, Disney Educational Productions, 2001.

Hughes' Dream Harlem, California Newsreel, 2002.

(With Davis) Narrator, Counting on Democracy, Bullfrog Films, 2004.

WRITINGS

Books:

(Editor) Glowchild, and Other Poems, Third Press, 1972.

My One Good Nerve (short stories, poetry, and humor), Third World Press, 1987.

(Reteller) Two Ways to Count to Ten (juvenile), Holt, 1988.

(Reteller) The Tower to Heaven (juvenile), Holt, 1991.

(With Davis) With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together (autobiography), Morrow, 1998.

My One Good Nerve, J. Wiley & Sons, 1998.

In Life Lit by Some Large Vision, Atria Books, 2006.

Plays:

Twin-Bit Gardens (also known as Take It from the Top), produced off-Broadway at New Federal Theatre, 1979.

Books with Legs, 1993.

Screenplays:

(With Jules Dassin and Julian Mayfield) Uptight (adapted from Liam O'Flaherty's novel The Informer), Paramount, 1968.

Television Specials:

Crazy Hattie Enters the Ice Age (television special), 1987.

"Zora Is My Name!," American Playhouse (television special), PBS, 1990.

Also contributor to Voices of the Black Theatre; author of columns for newspapers and magazines, including New York Amsterdam News; and associate editor, Freedomways magazine.

SIDELIGHTS

Favorite roles: Luttiebelle in Purlie Victorious, Lena in Boseman and Lena, and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra.

OTHER SOURCES

Books:

Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 50, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., Gale Research, 1998.

Periodicals:

American Theatre, September, 1998, p. 67.

Black Enterprise, May, 2005, p. 144.

Ebony, March, 1997, p. 71; February, 1999, p. 48.

Essence, October, 2005, p. 144.

Jet, January 11, 1999, p. 30.

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"Dee, Ruby 1924–." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Dee, Ruby

Ruby Dee

1924

Actress, civil rights activist, writer

Actress and social activist Ruby Dee expressed her philosophy in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America : "You just try to do everything that comes up. Get up an hour earlier, stay up an hour later, make the time. Then you look back and say, 'Well, that was a neat piece of juggling thereschool, marriage, babies, career.' The enthusiasms took me through the action, not the measuring of it or the reasonableness."

Dee's performing career has spanned more than 60 years and has included theater, radio, television, and movies. She and her husband, the late actor Ossie Davis, raised three children and were active in such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), as well as supporters of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Ruby Ann Wallace was born on October 27, 1924, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents, Marshall and Emma Wallace, moved the family to New York City in search of better job opportunities, ultimately settling in Harlem. Emma Wallace was determined not to let her children become victims of the ghetto that the area was quickly becoming. Dee and her siblings studied music and literature. In the evening, under the guidance of their school-teacher mother, they read aloud to each other from the poetry of Longfellow, Wordsworth, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. The influence of this education became apparent early in Dee's life, for as a teenager she began submitting poetry to the New York Amsterdam News, a black weekly newspaper.

Her love of English and poetry motivated Dee to study the arts, especially the spoken arts. Her mother had been an elocutionist who, as a young girl, wanted to be in the theater. Fully realizing the value of a good education, Dee decided that the public schools of Harlem, where so many of the black girls were being "educated" to become domestics, were not for her. She underwent the rigorous academic testing required for admittance to Hunter High School, one of New York's first-rate schools that drew the brightest girls. The self-confidence and poise that Dee's mother had instilled in her helped Ruby adjust to her new environment, which was populated with white girls from more privileged backgrounds. A black music teacher, Miss Peace, provided encouragement to the young Ruby, telling her to go as far and as quickly as she could.

While in high school, Dee decided to pursue acting. In an interview with the New York Times, she related that this decision was made "one beautiful afternoon in high school when I read aloud from a play and my classmates applauded." After graduation she entered Hunter College. There Dee joined the American Negro Theater (ANT) and adopted the on-stage name Ruby Dee. The struggling theater had little money, so in addition to rehearsing their parts the troupe sold tickets door-to-door in Harlem and performed all the maintenance duties in the theater, located in a basement auditorium of the 135th Street Library. Dee found the work she did with the ANT to be a memorable part of her training. Other young actors who started at the ANT and eventually became famous include Harry Belafonte, Earl Hyman, and Sidney Poitier.

While still at Hunter College, Dee took a class in radio training offered through the American Theater Wing. This training led to a part in the radio serial Nora Drake. When she graduated from Hunter College in 1945, Dee took a job at an export house as a French and Spanish translator. To earn extra income, she worked in a factory painting designs on buttons. Dee knew, however, that the theater was to be her destiny.

In 1946 Dee got her first Broadway role in Jeb, a drama about a returning black war hero. Ossie Davis, the actor in the title role, caught Dee's attention. After watching him do a scene in which he was tying a necktie, Dee experienced an awareness that she and Davis would share some type of connection. Critical reviews were good, but the play ran for only nine performances. Dee's intuition, however, proved to be true. She and Davis became close friends and worked together in the road company production of Anna Lucasta. Later they played Evelyn and Stewart in Garson Kanin's Smile of the World and were married on December 9, 1948, during a break in rehearsals for that play. (Davis died in 2005.)

Dee's first movie was Love in Syncopation, which was released in 1946. In 1950 she appeared in The Jackie Robinson Story as the legendary baseball player's wife. Also in that year she appeared in No Way Out, the story of a black doctorplayed by Sidney Poitierwho is accused of causing the death of his white patient. The film was revolutionary for its time because it was the first American film in which blacks and whites confronted each other in a realistic way.

Over the next decade, Dee appeared in several plays and movies in which she was cast as the consummate wife or girlfriendpatient, always understanding, all-forgiving. Such roles spurred at least one publication to refer to her as "the Negro June Allyson." A few parts helped Dee break free from this stereotyping. Of note is the role of the ebullient Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in Davis's 1961 play Purlie Victorious. In this satire on black/white relationships, Davis plays the preacher Purlie who, with Lutiebelle's assistance, helps to outwit a white plantation owner. In 1963 this highly successful play was made into a movie titled Gone Are the Days and was later musicalized as Purlie.

Dee again was typecast as a long-suffering wife and daughter-in-law in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. She recreated her role as Ruth Younger in 1963 film version of the play. Donald Bogle, in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, noted that prior to A Raisin in the Sun, Dee's roles made her appear to be "the typical woman born to be hurt" instead of a complete person. Bogle continued, "But in A Raisin in the Sun, Ruby Dee forged her inhibitions, her anemia, and her repressed and taut ache to convey beautifully the most searing kind of black torment."

The one role Dee feels put an end to her stereotyped image was that of Lena in the 1970 production of Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena. Fugard, a white South African dramatist, portrays the dilemma of South Africa's mixed race people who are rejected by both blacks and whites. Lena wanders the South African wilderness and ekes out a living with her brutish husband Boesman, played by James Earl Jones. Dee told interviewer Patricia Bosworth in the New York Times that "Lena is the greatest role I've ever had." It was also her first theater role since 1966, and she was not sure she could do it. Her husband encouraged her, saying that the part could have been written for her even though Fugard had originally written the role of Lena with a white actress in mind.

At a Glance

Born Ruby Ann Wallace on October 27, 1924 (some sources cite 1923 or 1927), in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Marshall and Emma (Benson) Wallace; married Ossie (an actor) Davis, December 9, 1948; children: Nora, Guy, LaVerne. Education : Hunter College, New York, BA 1945; studied with Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards at the Actors Workshop.

Career: Apprentice, American Negro Theatre, Harlem, 1941-44. Actress, 1946.

Awards: New York Urban League, Frederick Douglass Award, 1970; Obie Award and Drama Desk Award, both 1971, both for Boesman and Lena ; Drama Desk award, 1973, for Wedding Band ; Actors Equity Association Paul Robeson Citation, 1975; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1975; Theater Hall of Fame, 1988; National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons Image Award, 1989, for Do the Right Thing, and 1999, for Promised Land ; Literary Guild Award, 1989, for Two Ways to Count to Ten; Emmy Award, 1991, for Decoration Day ; Screen Actors Guild, Life Achievement Award, 2001; St. Louis International Film Festival, Lifetime Achievement Award (with Ossie Davis), 1998; Kennedy Center Honors, honoree, 2004.

Addresses: Home 44 Cortland Avenue, New Rochelle, NY 10801.

Dee immediately felt a bond with Lena. "I relate to her particular reality," she told Bosworth, "because it is mine and every black woman's. I can understand the extent of her poverty and her filth and absolute subjugation. On one level [Boesman and Lena] represent the universal struggle of black against white, man against woman. But they are also victims of something that is permeating an entire culture."

Dee finally realized that she was being offered a great part at a time when few, if any, good parts were written for black actresses. In the Bosworth interview she revealed, "I have always been reticent about expressing myself totally in a role. But with Lena I am suddenly, gloriously free. I can't explain how this frail, tattered little character took me over and burrowed so deep inside me that my voice changed and I began to move differently. [I am as] alive with her as I've never been on stage." Critics took note of Dee's performance. Clive Barnes wrote in his New York Times review of the play: "Ruby Dee as Lena is giving the finest performance I have ever seen. Never for a moment do you think she is acting. You have no sense of someone portraying a role. her manner, her entire being have a quality of wholeness that is rarely encountered in the theater."

Beginning in the early sixties, Dee made numerous appearances on television including roles in the Play of the Week and in such television series as The Fugitive, The Defenders, The Great Adventure, and The Nurses. On Peyton Place, where in 1968-69 she played Alma Miles, the wife of a neurosurgeon, she was the first black actress to be featured on the widely-watched nighttime serial. Her performance in an episode of the series East Side, West Side earned her an Emmy nomination. In 1991 Dee's performance in Decoration Day won her an Emmy.

Dee and Davis collaborated on several projects designed to promote black heritage in general and other black artists in particular. In 1974 they produced The Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Story Hour, which appeared on more than 60 stations on the National Black Network. In conjunction with the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), they produced the series With Ossie and Ruby in 1981. It was work that Dee found particularly satisfying because she got to travel around the country talking to authors and others who could put the black experience in perspective. She believes that the series made black people look at themselves outside of the problems of racism.

Issues of equality and civil rights have long been a concern of Dee's. Her activism can be traced back to when she was 11 years old, and her music teacher lost her job when funds for the Federal Music Program were cut. The teacher, terrified that she could not find another job in the Depression-ridden country, committed suicide. At a mass meeting following the teacher's death, Adam Clayton Powell was the principal speaker, and Dee was chosen to speak in favor of restoring the music program. Several years would pass before Dee became actively involved in civil rights.

The year was 1953, and the cause was Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs had been convicted of wartime sabotage against the United States and were scheduled to be executed. Dee's vocal protest of the planned executions was expressed in several interviews with the press. Some accused her of being exploited by the Communists; others were convinced she was a card-carrying member of the party. Dee's notoriety for denouncing the U.S. government's decision to execute the Jewish Rosenbergs eventually parlayed itself into her first non-black part in a play. In The World of Sholem Aleichem, Dee played the Defending Angel. This experience helped Dee realize that racism and discrimination were not the exclusive provinces of black peopleother races and cultures experienced it also. Dee began to understand how art and life blended together and how all human cultures are interrelated. She was inspired by these events to make a firm commitment to social activism.

Future events solidified this commitment. In September 1963, a bomb was thrown into a Birmingham, Alabama, church. The bomb killed four young black girls as they sat in their Sunday school class. People throughout the country were outraged by this senseless murder. Dee and Davis, along with other artists, formed the Association of Artists for Freedom. The group launched a successful boycott against extravagant Christmas spending and urged people to donate the money to various civil rights groups. Dee and Davis were involved in and supported several other civil rights protests and causes, including Martin Luther King's March on Washington. In 1970 the National Urban League honored them with the Frederick Douglas Award, a medallion presented each year for distinguished leadership toward equal opportunity.

By establishing the Ruby Dee Scholarship in Dramatic Art, Dee put into action her commitment to help others. The scholarship is awarded to talented young black women who want to become established in the acting profession. Both she and Davis donated money and countless hours of time to causes in which they believe. They founded the Institute of New Cinema Artists as a way to train chosen young people for film and television jobs. Their Recording Industry Training Program helps develop jobs for disadvantaged youths interested in the music industry.

Dee has also used her talent to make recordings for the blind and to narrate videocassettes that address issues of race relations. She has reinterpreted West African folktales for children and published them as Two Ways to Count to Ten and Tower to Heaven. Dee returned to poetry, her early love, to edit Glowchild and Other Poems and to collect her poems and short stories in a volume titled My One Good Nerve.

Dee's remarkable acting talent has endured over the years. She continued to appear in theater, movies, and television into the 2000s. In 1990 Dee appeared in the television movie The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson, playing Robinson's mother Mallie. Writing in New York, John Leonard laments that the movie gives Dee too little to do but commends her for "deliver[ing] one fine line" as she reprimands her son, who is about to sabotage his courtship with Rachel. With fervor Dee, in the role of Mallie, states: "I didn't raise my boys to have sharecropper minds!" Leonard attributes the conviction with which Dee played her part to the fact that she played the role of Rachel herself 40 years earlier.

Director Spike Lee cast Dee in the role of Mother Sisterand Davis in the role of Da Mayorfor his controversial 1989 film Do the Right Thing. As Mother Sister, Dee plays a widow who lives in a brownstone and spends her time watching the neighborhood through a ground-floor window. In New Republic Stanley Kauffmann described Dee as "that fine actress with an unfulfilled career in white America" and described her role in Lee's movie "as a sort of neighborhood Delphic oracle." Davis plays a beer-drinking street philosopher who is in love with Mother Sister.

As racial tension rises in the neighborhood, Mother Sister and Da Mayor are unable to do anything to diffuse it. According to Terrence Rafferty in the New Yorker, these two characters "stand for the older generation, whose cynical, 'realistic' attitude toward living in a white society may have kept them from finding ways out of their poverty but may also have helped keep them alive." Lee also cast the pair as the parents of the main character in Jungle Fever.

Though she was in her early 80s, Dee played the role of Nanny in the 2005 television production of author Zora Neale Hurston's classic work Their Eyes Were Watching God, to great critical acclaim. She was also scheduled to appear in several other movies.

In 1988 Ebony featured Dee and Davis as one of "Three Great Love Stories." Explaining the success of their long marriage, Dee told Ebony : "The ratio of the good times to the bad times is better than 50-50, and that helps a lot. We shared a great deal in common; we didn't have any distractions as to where we stood in society. We were black activists. We had a common understanding." Davis added, "We believe in honesty. We believe in simplicity. We believe in love. We believe in the family. We believe in black history, and we believe heavily in involvement. "

Selected works

Films

Love in Syncopation, 1946.

The Jackie Robinson Story, 1950.

No Way Out, 1950.

Go, Man, Go!, 1954.

Take a Giant Step, 1959.

Virgin Island, 1960.

A Raisin in the Sun, 1961.

Gone Are the Days, 1963.

The Incident, 1967.

Black Girl, 1972.

Do the Right Thing, 1989.

Jungle Fever, 1991.

A Simple Wish, 1997.

Baby Geniuses, 1999.

Baby of the Family, 2002.

Plays

Jeb, 1946.

Anna Lucasta, 1946.

The World of Sholom Aleichem, 1953.

A Raisin in the Sun, 1959.

Purlie Victorious, 1961.

Boesman and Lena, 1970.

Checkmates, 1988.

(And author) My One Good Nerve, 1999.

Television

East Side, West Side, 1963.

The Nurses, 1963.

Peyton Place, 1968-69.

Wedding Band, 1974.

(Co-producer) The Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Story Hour, 1974.

Roots: The Next Generations, 1979.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, 1979.

(And co-producer) With Ossie and Ruby, 1981.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1983.

The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson, 1990.

Decoration Day, 1991.

The Stand, 1994.

Mr. and Mrs. Loving, 1996.

Promised Land, 1998.

Finding Buck McHenry, 2000.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, 2005.

Writings

(With Jules Dassin and Julian Mayfield) Uptight (screenplay; adapted from Liam O'Flaherty's novel The Informer ), Paramount, 1968.

(Editor) Glowchild and Other Poems, Third Press, 1972.

Twin-Bit Gardens (musical play; also known as Take It From the Top ), produced Off-Broadway at New Federal Theater, 1979.

My One Good Nerve (poetry and short stories), Third World Press, 1986.

(Reteller) Two Ways to Count to Ten (juvenile), Holt, 1988.

"Zora Is My Name" (screenplay), American Playhouse, PBS, 1990.

(Reteller) Tower to Heaven (juvenile), Holt, 1991.

(With Ossie Davis) With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (memoir), W. Morrow, 1998.

My One Good Nerve (memoir), J. Wiley and Sons, 1999.

Sources

Books

Black Women in America, Carlson, 1993.

Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland, 1988.

Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, Viking, 1973.

Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, Scarecrow Press, 1990.

Fax, Elton C., Contemporary Black Leaders, Dodd, 1970.

Lanker, Brian, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, Stewart, Tabori, Chang, 1989.

Salley, Columbus, editor, The Black 100, Citadel Press, 1993.

Periodicals

Commonweal, January 13, 1989, p. 21; July 14, 1989, p. 403.

Cosmopolitan, August 1991, p. 28.

Ebony, February 1988, p. 152.

Essence, May 1987, p. 28.

Jet, December 5, 1988, p. 55; March 26, 2001.

Library Journal, October 1, 1991, p. 153; January 1992, p. 198.

Nation, July 17, 1989, p. 98.

National Review, August 4, 1989, p. 45.

New Republic, July 3, 1989, p. 24.

Newsweek, July 3, 1989, p. 64.

New York, August 22, 1988, p. 142; October 22, 1990, p. 136; November 26, 1990, p. 165.

New Yorker, July 24, 1989, p. 78.

New York Times, June 23, 1970; July 12, 1970.

People, July 3, 1989, p. 13; March 14, 2005.

Publishers Weekly, June 10, 1988, p. 80; May 17, 1991, p. 63.

School Library Journal, October 1990, p. 76; July 1991, p. 67; March 1992, p. 196.

Washington Post, December 5, 2004.

Debra G. Harroun and

Tom Pendergast

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Dee, Ruby 1924–

Ruby Dee 1924

Actress, civil rights activist, writer

At a Glance

Landed First Broadway Role

Broke Free From Typecasting

Took Up Civil Rights Causes

Established Dramatic Art Scholarship

Selected writings

Sources

Actress and social activist Ruby Dee expressed her philosophy in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America: You just try to do everything that comes up. Get up an hour earlier, stay up an hour later, make the time. Then you look back and say, Well, that was a neat piece of juggling thereschool, marriage, babies, career. The enthusiasms took me through the action, not the measuring of it or the reasonableness.

Dees acting career has spanned more than 50 years and has included theater, radio, television, and movies. She and her husband, actor Ossie Davis, have raised three children and been active in such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), as well as supporters of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Ruby Ann Wallace was born on October 27, 1924, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents, Marshall and Emma Wallace, in search of better job opportunities, moved the family to New York City, ultimately settling in Harlem. Emma Wallace was determined not to let her children become victims of the ghetto that the area was quickly becoming. Dee and her siblings studied music and literature. In the evening, under the guidance of their school-teacher mother, they read aloud to each other from the poetry of Longfellow, Wordsworth, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. The influence of this education became apparent early in Dees life when as a teenager she began submitting poetry to the New York Amsterdam News, a black weekly newspaper.

Her love of English and poetry motivated Dee to study the arts, especially the spoken arts. Her mother had been an elocutionist who, as a young girl, wanted to be in the theater. Fully realizing the value of a good education, Dee decided that the public schools of Harlem, where so many of the black girls were being educated to become domestics, were not for her. She underwent the rigorous academic testing required for admittance to Hunter High School, one of New Yorks first-rate schools that drew the brightest girls. The self-confidence and poise that Dees mother had instilled in her helped Ruby adjust to her new environment populated with white girls from more privileged backgrounds. A black music teacher, Miss Peace, provided encouragement to the young Ruby, telling her to go as far and as quickly as she could.

At a Glance

Born Ruby Ann Wallace, October 27, 1924 (some sources cite 1923 or 1927), in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Marshall and Emma (Benson) Wallace; married Ossie (an actor) Davis, December 9, 1948; children: Nora, Guy, LaVerne. Education: Hunter College, BA, 1945; studied with Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards at the Actors Workshop.

Apprentice, American Negro Theatre, Harlem, 1941-44; Broadway debut in Jeb, 1946; other stage appearances include Anna Lucasta, 1946; The World of Sholom Aleichem, 1953; A Raisin in the Sun, 1959; Purlie Victorious, 1961; Boesman and Lena, 1970; and Checkmates, 1988. Film appearances include Love in Syncopation, 1946; The Jackie Robinson Story, 1950; Co, Man, Co!, 1954; Take a Ciant Step, 1959; Virgin Island, 1960; A Raisin in the Sun, 1961; The Incident, 1967; Black Ciri, 1972; Do the Right Thing, 1989; and Jungle Fever, 1991. Television appearances include Wedding Band, 1974; Roots: The Next Generations, 1979; / Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, 1979; (and co-producer) With Ossie and Ruby, 1981; Long Days Journey Into Night, 1983; Decoration Day, 1991; and The Stand, 1994.

Awards: Frederick Douglass New York Urban League Award, 1970; Obie Award and Drama Desk Award, both 1971, both for Boesman and Lena; Drama Desk award, 1973, for Wedding Band; Actors Equity Association Paul Robeson Citation, 1975; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1975; Theater Hall of Fame, 1988; National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons Image Award, 1989, for Do the Right Thing; Literary Guild Award, 1989, for Two Ways to Count to Ten; Emmy Award, 1991, for Decoration Day.

Addresses: Home 44 Cortland Avenue, New Rochelle, NY 10801.

While in high school, Dee decided to pursue acting. In an interview with the New York Times, she related that this decision was made one beautiful afternoon in high school when I read aloud from a play and my classmates applauded. After graduation she entered Hunter College. There Dee joined the American Negro Theater (ANT) and adopted the on-stage name Ruby Dee. The struggling theater had little money, so in addition to rehearsing their parts the troupe sold tickets door-to-door in Harlem and performed all the maintenance duties in the theater, located in a basement auditorium of the 135th Street Library. Dee found the work she did with the ANT to be a memorable part of her training. Other young actors who started at the ANT and eventually became famous include Harry Belafonte, Earl Hyman, and Sidney Poitier.

While still at Hunter College, Dee took a class in radio training offered through the American Theater Wing. This training led to a part in the radio serial Nora Drake. When she graduated from Hunter College in 1945, Dee took a job at an export house as a French and Spanish translator. To earn extra income, she worked in a factory painting designs on buttons. Dee knew, however, that the theater was to be her destiny.

Landed First Broadway Role

In 1946 Dee got her first Broadway role in Jeb, a drama about a returning black war hero. Ossie Davis, the actor in the title role, caught Dees attention. After watching him do a scene in which he was tying a necktie, Dee experienced an awareness that she and Davis would share some type of connection. Critical reviews were good, but the play ran for only nine performances. Dees intuition, however, proved to be true. She and Davis became close friends and worked together in the road company production of Anna Lucasta. Later they played Evelyn and Stewart in Garson Kanins Smile of the World and were married on December 9, 1948, during a break in rehearsals for that play.

Dees first movie was Loue in Syncopation, which was released in 1946. In 1950 she appeared in The Jackie Robinson Story as the legendary baseball players wife. Also in that year she appeared in No Way Out, the story of a black doctorplayed by Sidney Poitierwho is accused of causing the death of his white patient. The film was revolutionary for its time because it was the first American film in which blacks and whites confronted each other in a realistic way.

Over the next decade, Dee appeared in several plays and movies in which she was cast as the consummate wife or girlfriendpatient, always understanding, all-forgiving. Such roles spurred at least one publication to refer to her as the Negro June Allyson. A few parts helped Dee break free from this stereotyping. Of note is the role of the ebullient Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in Daviss 1961 play Purlie Victorious. In this satire on black/white relationships, Davis plays the preacher Purlie who, with Lutiebelles assistance, helps to outwit a white plantation owner. In 1963 this highly successful play was made into a movie titled Gone Are the Days and was later musicalized as Purlie.

Dee again was typecast as a long-suffering wife and daughter-in-law in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberrys A Raisin in the Sun. She recreated her role as Ruth Younger in 1963 film version of the play. Donald Bogle, in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, noted that prior to A Raisin in the Sun, Dees roles made her appear to be the typical woman born to be hurt instead of a complete person. Bogle continued, But in A Raisin in the Sun, Ruby Dee forged her inhibitions, her anemia, and her repressed and taut ache to convey beautifully the most searing kind of black torment.

Broke Free From Typecasting

The one role Dee feels put an end to her stereotyped image was that of Lena in the 1970 production of Athol Fugards Boesman and Lena. Fugard, a white South African dramatist, portrays the dilemma of South Africas mixed race people who are rejected by both blacks and whites. Lena wanders the South African wilderness and ekes out a living with her brutish husband Boesman, played by James Earl Jones. Dee told interviewer Patricia Bosworth in the blew York Times that Lena is the greatest role Ive ever had. It was also her first theater role since 1966, and she was not sure she could do it. Her husband encouraged her, saying that the part could have been written for her even though Fugard had originally written the role of Lena with a white actress in mind.

Dee immediately felt a bond with Lena. I relate to her particular reality, she told Bosworth, because it is mine and every black womans. I can understand the extent of her poverty and her filth and absolute subjugation. On one level [Boesman and Lena] represent the universal struggle of black against white, man against woman. But they are also victims of something that is permeating an entire culture.

Dee finally realized that she was being offered a great part at a time when few, if any, good parts were written for black actresses. In the Bosworth interview she revealed, I have always been reticent about expressing myself totally in a role. But with Lena I am suddenly, gloriously free. I cant explain how this frail, tattered little character took me over and burrowed so deep inside me that my voice changed and I began to move differently. [I am as] alive with her as Ive never been on stage. Critics took note of Dees performance. Clive Barnes wrote in his New York Times review of the play: Ruby Dee as Lena is giving the finest performance I have ever seen. Never for a moment do you think she is acting. You have no sense of someone portraying a role. her manner, her entire being have a quality of wholeness that is rarely encountered in the theater.

Beginning in the early sixties, Dee made numerous appearances on television including roles in the Play of the Week and in such television series as The Fugitive, The Defenders, The Great Adventure, and The Nurses, where in 1968, she played Alma Miles, the wife of a neurosurgeon. On Peyton Place, she was the first black actress to be featured on the widely-watched nighttime serial. Her performance in an episode of the series East Side, West Side earned her an Emmy nomination. In 1991 Dees performance in Decoration Day won her an Emmy.

Dee and Davis collaborated on several projects designed to promote black heritage in general and other black artists in particular. In 1974 they produced The Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Story Hour, which appeared on more than 60 stations on the National Black Network. In conjunction with the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), they produced the series With Ossie and Ruby in 1981. It was work that Dee found particularly satisfying because she got to travel around the country talking to authors and others who could put the black experience in perspective. She believes that the series made black people look at themselves outside of the problems of racism.

Took Up Civil Rights Causes

Issues of equality and civil rights have long been a concern of Dees. Her activism can be traced back to when she was 11 years old, and her music teacher lost her job when funds for the Federal Music Program were cut. The teacher, terrified that she could not find another job in the Depression-ridden country, committed suicide. At a mass meeting following the teachers death, Adam Clayton Powell was the principal speaker, and Dee was chosen to speak in favor of restoring the music program. Several years would pass before Dee became actively involved in civil rights.

The year was 1953, and the cause was Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs had been convicted of wartime sabotage against the United States and were scheduled to be executed. Dees vocal protest of the planned executions were expressed in several interviews with the press. Some accused her of being exploited by the Communists; others were convinced she was a card-carrying member of the party.

Dees notoriety for denouncing the U.S. Governments decision to execute the Jewish Rosenbergs eventually parlayed itself into her first non-black part in a play. In The World of Sholem Aleichem, Dee played the Defending Angel. This experience helped Dee realize that racism and discrimination were not the exclusive provinces of black peopleother races and cultures experienced it also. Dee began to understand how art and life blended together and how all human cultures are interrelated. She was inspired by these events to make a firm commitment to social activism.

Future events solidified this commitment. In September 1963, a bomb was thrown into a Birmingham, Alabama, church. The bomb killed four young black girls as they sat in their Sunday school class. People throughout the country were outraged by this senseless murder. Dee and Davis, along with other artists, formed the Association of Artists for Freedom. The group launched a successful boycott against extravagant Christmas spending and urged people to donate the money to various civil rights groups. Dee and Davis were involved in and supported several other civil rights protests and causes, including Martin Luther Kings March on Washington. In 1970 the National Urban League honored them with the Frederick Douglas Award, a medallion presented each year for distinguished leadership toward equal opportunity.

Established Dramatic Art Scholarship

By establishing the Ruby Dee Scholarship in Dramatic Art, Dee put into action her commitment to help others. The scholarship is awarded to talented young black women who want to become established in the acting profession. Both she and Davis have donated money and countless hours of time to causes in which they believe. They founded the Institute of New Cinema Artists as a way to train chosen young people for film and television jobs. Their Receding Industry Training Program helps develop jobs for disadvantaged youths interested in the music industry.

Dee has also used her talent to make recordings for the blind and to narrate vidéocassettes that address issues of race relations. She has reinterpreted West African folktales for children and published them as Two Ways to Count to Ten and Tower to Heaven. Dee returned to poetry, her early love, to edit Glowchild and Other Poems and to collect her poems and short stories in a volume titled My One Good Nerve.

Dees remarkable acting talent has endured over the years. She continued to appear in theater, movies, and television throughout the seventies and eighties. In 1990 Dee appeared in the television movie The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson, playing Robinsons mother Mallie. John Leonard writing in New York laments that the movie gives Dee too little to do but commends her for delivering] one fine line as she reprimands her son, who is about to sabotage his courtship with Rachel. With fervor Dee, in the role of Mallie, states: I didnt raise my boys to have sharecropper minds! Leonard attributes the conviction with which Dee played her part to the fact that she played the role of Rachel herself 40 years earlier.

Director Spike Lee cast Dee in the role of Mother Sisterand Davis in the role of Da Mayorfor his controversial 1989 film Do the Right Thing. As Mother Sister, Dee plays a widow who lives in a brownstone and spends her time watching the neighborhood through a ground-floor window. In New Republic Stanley Kauffmann described Dee as that fine actress with an unfulfilled career in white America and described her role in Lees movie as a sort of neighborhood Delphic oracle. Davis plays a beer-drinking street philosopher who is in love with Mother Sister.

As racial tension rises in the neighborhood, Mother Sister and Da Mayor are unable to do anything to diffuse it. According to Terrence Rafferty in the New Yorker, these two characters stand for the older generation, whose cynical, realistic attitude toward living in a white society may have kept them from finding ways out of their poverty but may also have helped keep them alive. Lee also cast the pair as the parents of the main character in Jungle Fever.

In 1988 Ebony featured Dee and Davis as one of Three Great Love Stories. Explaining the success of their long marriage, Dee told Ebony: The ratio of the good times to the bad times is better than 50-50, and that helps a lot. We shared a great deal in common; we didnt have any distractions as to where we stood in society. We were black activists. We had a common understanding. Davis added, We believe in honesty. We believe in simplicity. We believe in love. We believe in the family. We believe in black history, and we believe heavily in involvement.

Selected writings

Plays

Twin-Bit Gardens (musical; also known as Take It From the Top), produced Off-Broadway at New Federal Theater, 1979.

Film and television

(With Jules Dassin and Julian Mayfield) Uptight (screenplay; adapted from Liam OFlahertys novel The Informer), Paramount, 1968.

Zora Is My Name, American Playhouse, PBS, 1990.

Books

(Editor) Glowchild and Other Poems, Third Press, 1972.

My One Good Nerve (poetry and short stories), Third World Press, 1986.

(Reteller) Two Ways to Count to Ten (juvenile), Holt, 1988.

(Reteller) Tower to Heaven (juvenile), Holt, 1991.

Sources

Books

Black Women in America, Carlson, 1993.

Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland, 1988.

Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, Viking, 1973.

Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, Scarecrow Press, 1990.

Fax, Elton C., Contemporary Black Leaders, Dodd, 1970.

Lanker, Brian, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, Stewart, Tabori, Chang, 1989.

Salley, Columbus, editor, The Black 100, Citadel Press, 1993.

Periodicals

Commonweal, January 13, 1989, p. 21; July 14, 1989, p. 403.

Cosmopolitan, August 1991, p. 28.

Ebony, February 1988, p. 152.

Essence, May 1987, p. 28.

Jet, December 5, 1988, p. 55.

Library Journal, October 1, 1991, p. 153; January 1992, p. 198.

Nation, July 17, 1989, p. 98.

National Review, August 4, 1989, p. 45.

New Republic, July 3, 1989, p. 24.

Newsweek, July 3, 1989, p. 64.

New York, August 22, 1988, p. 142; October 22, 1990, p. 136; November 26, 1990, p. 165.

New Yorker, July 24, 1989, p. 78.

New York Times, June 23, 1970; July 12, 1970.

People, July 3, 1989, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly, June 10, 1988, p. 80; May 17, 1991, p. 63.

School Library Journal, October 1990, p. 76; July 1991, p. 67; March 1992, p. 196.

Debra G. Harroun

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Ruby Dee

Ruby Dee

Ruby Dee's acting career has spanned more than 50 years and has included theater, radio, television, and movies. She has also been active in such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Early roles

Ruby Dee was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 27, 1924, but grew up in Harlem, attending Hunter College in New York. In 1942, she appeared in South Pacific with Canada Lee. Five years later, she met Ossie Davis while they were both playing in Jeb. They were married two years later.

Ruby Dee's movies roles from this period include parts in No Way Out (1950), Edge of the City (1957), Raisin in the Sun (1961), Genet's The Balcony (1963), and Purlie Victorious (1963), written by Davis. Since 1960, she has appeared often on network television.

In 1965, Ruby Dee became the first black actress to appear in major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. Appearances in movies including The Incident (1967), Uptight (1968), Buck and the Preacher (1972), Black Girl (directed by Davis) (1972), and Countdown at Kusini (1976) followed. Her musical satire Take It from the Top, in which she appeared with her husband in a showcase run at the Henry Street Settlement Theatre in New York premiered in 1979.

As a team, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis have recorded several talking story albums for Caedmon. In 1974, they produced "The Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Story Hour," which was sponsored by Kraft Foods and carried by more than 60 stations of the National Black Network. Together they founded the Institute of New Cinema Artists to train young people for jobs in films and television, and then the Recording Industry Training Program to develop jobs in the music industry for disadvantaged youths. In 1981, Alcoa funded a television series on the Public Broadcasting System titled "With Ossie and Ruby," which used guests to provide an anthology of the arts. Recent film credits include Cat People (1982) and, with Ossie Davis, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989).

"A neat piece of juggling"

Actress and social activist Ruby Dee expressed her philosophy in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America: "You just try to do everything that comes up. Get up an hour earlier, stay up an hour later, make the time. Then you look back and say, 'Well, that was a neat piece of juggling there—school, marriage, babies, career.' The enthusiasms took me through the action, not the measuring of it or the reasonableness."

Dee's acting career has spanned more than 50 years and has included theater, radio, television, and movies. She and her husband, actor Ossie Davis, have raised three children and been active in such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), as well as supporters of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Ruby Ann Wallace was born on October 27, 1924, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents, Marshall and Emma Wallace, in search of better job opportunities, moved the family to New York City, ultimately settling in Harlem. Emma Wallace was determined not to let her children become victims of the ghetto that the area was quickly becoming. Dee and her siblings studied music and literature. In the evening, under the guidance of their schoolteacher mother, they read aloud to each other from the poetry of Longfellow, Wordsworth, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. The influence of this education became apparent early in Dee's life when as a teenager she began submitting poetry to the New York Amsterdam News, a black weekly newspaper.

Pursued Education

Her love of English and poetry motivated Dee to study the arts, especially the spoken arts. Her mother had been an elocutionist who, as a young girl, wanted to be in the theater. Fully realizing the value of a good education, Dee decided that the public schools of Harlem, where so many of the black girls were being "educated" to become domestics, were not for her. She underwent the rigorous academic testing required for admittance to Hunter High School, one of New York's first-rate schools that drew the brightest girls. The self-confidence and poise that Dee's mother had instilled in her helped Ruby adjust to her new environment populated with white girls from more privileged backgrounds. A black music teacher, Miss Peace, provided encouragement to the young Ruby, telling her to go as far and as quickly as she could.

While in high school, Dee decided to pursue acting. In an interview with the New York Times, she related that this decision was made "one beautiful afternoon in high school when I read aloud from a play and my classmates applauded." After graduation she entered Hunter College. There Dee joined the American Negro Theater (ANT) and adopted the on-stage name Ruby Dee. The struggling theater had little money, so in addition to rehearsing their parts the troupe sold tickets door-to-door in Harlem and performed all the maintenance duties in the theater, located in a basement auditorium of the 135th Street Library. Dee found the work she did with the ANT to be a memorable part of her training. Other young actors who started at the ANT and eventually became famous include Harry Belafonte, Earle Hyman, and Sidney Poitier.

While still at Hunter College, Dee took a class in radio training offered through the American Theater Wing. This training led to a part in the radio serial Nora Drake. When she graduated from Hunter College in 1945, Dee took a job at an export house as a French and Spanish translator. To earn extra income, she worked in a factory painting designs on buttons. Dee knew, however, that the theater was to be her destiny.

Landed First Broadway Role

In 1946 Dee got her first Broadway role in Jeb, a drama about a returning black war hero. Ossie Davis, the actor in the title role, caught Dee's attention. After watching him do a scene in which he was tying a necktie, Dee experienced an awareness that she and Davis would share some type of connection. Critical reviews of the play were good, but the play ran for only nine performances. Dee's intuition, however, proved to be true. She and Davis became close friends and worked together in the road company production of Anna Lucasta. Later they played Evelyn and Stewart in Garson Kanin's Smile of the World and were married on December 9, 1948, during a break in rehearsals for that play.

Dee's first movie was Love in Syncopation, which was released in 1946. In 1950 she appeared in The Jackie Robinson Story as the legendary baseball player's wife. Also in that year she appeared in No Way Out, the story of a black doctor—played by Sidney Poitier—who is accused of causing the death of his white patient. The film was revolutionary for its time because it was the first American film in which blacks and whites confronted each other in a realistic way.

Over the next decade, Dee appeared in several plays and movies in which she was cast as the consummate wife or girlfriend—patient, always understanding, all-forgiving. Such roles spurred at least one publication to refer to her as "the Negro June Allyson." A few parts helped Dee break free from this stereotyping. Of note is the role of the ebullient Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in Davis's 1961 play Purlie Victorious. In this satire on black/white relationships, Davis plays the preacher Purlie who, with Lutiebelle's assistance, helps to outwit a white plantation owner. In 1963 this highly successful play was made into a movie titled Gone Are the Days and was later musicalized as Purlie.

Dee again was typecast as a long-suffering wife and daughter-in-law in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. She recreated her role as Ruth Younger in 1963 film version of the play. Donald Bogle, in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, noted that prior to A Raisin in the Sun, Dee's roles made her appear to be "the typical woman born to be hurt" instead of a complete person. Bogle continued, "But in A Raisin in the Sun, Ruby Dee forged her inhibitions, her anemia, and her repressed and taut ache to convey beautifully the most searing kind of black torment."

Broke Free From Typecasting

The one role Dee feels put an end to her stereotyped image was that of Lena in the 1970 production of Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena. Fugard, a white South African dramatist, portrays the dilemma of South Africa's mixed race people who are rejected by both blacks and whites. Lena wanders the South African wilderness and ekes out a living with her brutish husband Boesman, played by James Earl Jones. Dee told interviewer Patricia Bosworth in the New York Times that "Lena is the greatest role I've ever had." It was also her first theater role since 1966, and she was not sure she could do it. Her husband encouraged her, saying that the part could have been written for her even though Fugard had originally written the role of Lena with a white actress in mind.

Dee immediately felt a bond with Lena. "I relate to her particular reality," she told Bosworth, "because it is mine and every black woman's. I can understand the extent of her poverty and her filth and absolute subjugation. … On one level [Boesman and Lena] represent the universal struggle of black against white, man against woman. But they are also victims of something that is permeating an entire culture."

Dee finally realized that she was being offered a great part at a time when few, if any, good parts were written for black actresses. In the New York Times interview she revealed, "I have always been reticent about expressing myself totally in a role. But with Lena I am suddenly, gloriously free. I can't explain how this frail, tattered little character took me over and burrowed so deep inside me that my voice changed and I began to move differently. … [I am as] alive with her as I've never been on stage." Critics took note of Dee's performance. Clive Barnes wrote in his New York Times review of the play: "Ruby Dee as Lena is giving the finest performance I have ever seen. … Never for a moment do you think she is acting. … You have no sense of some one portraying a role. … her manner, her entire being have a quality of wholeness that is rarely encountered in the theater."

Beginning in the early 1960s, Dee made numerous appearances on television including roles in the Play of the Week and in such television series as The Fugitive, The Defenders, The Great Adventure, and The Nurses. In 1968 she played Alma Miles, the wife of a neurosurgeon, on Peyton Place, the first black actresses to be featured in this widely-watched nighttime serial. Her performance in an episode of the series East Side, West Side earned her an Emmy nomination. In 1991 Dee's performance in Decoration Day won her an Emmy.

Dee and Davis collaborated on several projects designed to promote black heritage in general and other black artists in particular. In 1974 they produced The Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Story Hour which appeared on over 60 stations on the National Black Network. In conjunction with the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), they produced the series With Ossie and Ruby in 1981. It was work that Dee found particularly satisfying because she got to travel the country talking to authors and others who could put the black experience in perspective. She believes that the series made black people look at themselves outside of the problems of racism.

Took Up Civil Rights Causes

Issues of equality and civil rights have long been a concern of Dee's. Her activism can be traced back to when she was 11 years old and her music teacher lost her job when funds for the Federal Music Program were cut. The teacher, terrified that she could not find another job in the Depression-ridden country, committed suicide. At a mass meeting following the teacher's death, Adam Clayton Powell was the principal speaker and Dee was chosen to speak in favor of restoring the music program. Several years would pass before Dee became actively involved in civil rights.

The year was 1953, and the cause was Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs had been convicted of wartime sabotage and were scheduled to be executed. Dee's vocal protest of the planned executions were expressed in several interviews with the press. Some accused her of being exploited by the Communists; others were convinced she was a card-carrying member of the party.

Dee's notoriety for denouncing the U.S. Government's decision to execute the Jewish Rosenbergs eventually parlayed itself into her first non-black part in a play. In The World of Sholem Aleichem, Dee played the Defending Angel. This experience helped Dee realize that racism and discrimination were not the exclusive provinces of black people—other races and cultures experienced it also. Dee began to understand how art and life blended together and how all human cultures are interrelated. She was inspired by these events to make a firm commitment to social activism.

Future events solidified this commitment. In September 1963, a hate bomb was thrown into a Birmingham, Alabama, church. The bomb killed four young black girls as they sat in their Sunday school class. People throughout the country were outraged by this senseless murder. Dee and Davis, along with other artists, formed the Association of Artists for Freedom. The group launched a successful boycott against extravagant Christmas spending and urged people to donate the money to various civil rights groups. Dee and Davis were involved in and supported several other civil rights protests and causes including Martin Luther King's March on Washington. In 1970 the National Urban League honored them with the Frederick Douglass Award, a medallion presented each year for distinguished leadership toward equal opportunity.

Established Dramatic Art Scholarship

By establishing the Ruby Dee Scholarship in Dramatic Art, Dee put into action her commitment to help others. The scholarship is awarded to talented young black women who want to become established in the acting profession. Both she and Davis have donated money and countless hours of time to causes in which they believe. They founded the Institute of New Cinema Artists as a way to train chosen young people for film and television jobs. Their Recording Industry Training Program helps develop jobs for disadvantaged youths interested in the music industry.

Dee has also used her talent to make recordings for the blind and to narrate videocassettes that address issues of race relations. She has reinterpreted West African folktales for children and published them as Two Ways to Count to Tenand Tower to Heaven. Dee returned to poetry, her early love, to edit Glowchild and Other Poems and to collect her poems and short stories in a volume titled My One Good Nerve.

Dee's remarkable acting talent has endured over the years. She continued to appear in theater, movies and television throughout the 1970s and '80s. In 1990 Dee appeared in the television movie The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson, playing Jackie Robinson's mother Mallie. John Leonard writing in New York laments that the movie gives Dee too little to do but commends Dee for "deliver[ing] one fine line" as she reprimands her son who is about to sabotage his courtship with Rachel. With fervor Dee, in the role of Mallie, states: "I didn't raise my boys to have sharecropper minds!" Leonard attributes the conviction with which Dee played her part to the fact that she played the role of Rachel herself over 40 years ago.

Director Spike Lee cast Dee in the role of Mother Sister—and Davis in the role of "Da Mayor"—for his controversial 1989 film Do the Right Thing. As Mother Sister, Dee plays a widow who lives in a brownstone and spends her time watching the neighborhood through a ground-floor window. In New Republic Stanley Kauffmann described Dee as "that fine actress with an unfulfilled career in white America" and described her role in Lee's movie "as a sort of neighborhood Delphic oracle." Davis plays a beer-drinking street philosopher who is in love with Mother Sister.

As racial tension rises in the neighborhood, Mother Sister and Da Mayor are unable to do anything to diffuse it. According to Terrence Rafferty in the New Yorker, these two characters "stand for the older generation, whose cynical, 'realistic' attitude toward living in a white society may have kept them from finding ways out of their poverty but may also have helped keep them alive." Lee also cast the pair as the parents of the main character in Jungle Fever.

In 1988 Ebony featured Dee and Davis as one of "Three Great Love Stories." Explaining the success of their long marriage, Dee told Ebony: "The ratio of the good times to the bad times is better than 50-50 and that helps a lot. … We shared a great deal in common; we didn't have any distractions as to where we stood in society. We were Black activists. We had a common understanding." Davis added, "We believe in honesty. We believe in simplicity. … We believe in love. We believe in the family. We believe in Black history, and we believe heavily in involvement."

Further Reading

Black Women in America, Carlson, 1993.

Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland, 1988.

Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, Viking, 1973.

Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, Scarecrow Press, 1990.

Fax, Elton C., Contemporary Black Leaders, Dodd, 1970.

Lanker, Brian, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, Stewart, Tabori, Chang, 1989.

Salley, Columbus, editor, The Black 100, Citadel Press, 1993.

Commonweal, January 13, 1989, p. 21; July 14, 1989, p. 403.

Cosmopolitan, August 1991, p. 28.

Ebony, February 1988, p. 152.

Essence, May 1987, p. 28.

Jet, December 5, 1988, p. 55.

Library Journal, October 1, 1991, p. 153; January 1992, p. 198.

Nation, July 17, 1989, p. 98.

National Review, August 4, 1989, p. 45.

New Republic, July 3, 1989, p. 24.

Newsweek, July 3, 1989, p. 64.

New York, August 22, 1988, p. 142; October 22, 1990, p. 136;November 26, 1990, p. 165.

New Yorker, July 24, 1989, p. 78.

New York Times, June 23, 1970; July 12, 1970.

People, July 3, 1989, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly, June 10, 1988, p. 80; May 17, 1991, p. 63.

School Library Journal, October 1990, p. 76; July 1991, p. 67; March 1992, p. 196. □

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Dee, Ruby

Ruby Dee

Born: October 27, 1924
Cleveland, Ohio

African American actress

Ruby Dee's acting career has spanned more than fifty years and has included theater, radio, television, and movies. She has also been active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

The early years

Ruby Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace on October 27, 1924, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents, Marshall and Emma Wallace, moved the family to Harlem in New York City when Dee was just a baby. In the evening Dee, her two sisters, and her brother read aloud to each other from the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (18071882), William Wordsworth (17701850), and Paul Laurence Dunbar (18721906). As a teenager Dee submitted poetry to the New York Amsterdam News, a black weekly newspaper. Later in life, Dee admitted that during those years she was a shy girl but that she always felt a burning desire to express herself.

Pursued education

Dee's love of English and poetry motivated her to study the arts. She attended Hunter High School, one of New York's first-rate schools that drew the brightest girls. While in high school, Dee decided to pursue acting.

After graduation Dee entered Hunter College. There she joined the American Negro Theater (ANT) and adopted the stage name Ruby Dee. While still at Hunter College, Dee took a class in radio training offered through the American Theater Wing. This training led to a part in the radio serial Nora Drake. After college Dee worked as a French and Spanish translator. She knew, however, that the theater was to be her destiny.

First Broadway role

In 1946 Dee got her first Broadway role in Jeb, a drama about a returning African American war hero. There she met Ossie Davis, the actor in the title role. They became close friends and were married on December 9, 1948.

Dee's first movie was Love in Syncopation, released in 1946. In 1950 she appeared in The Jackie Robinson Story and in No Way Out. In 1957 Dee appeared in Edge of the City. Over the next decade, Dee appeared in several plays and movies including A Raisin in the Sun and Davis's play Purlie Victorious. In 1965 Ruby Dee became the first African American actress to appear in major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. Her musical satire Take It from the Top opened in New York in 1979.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Dee made numerous appearances on television including roles in the Play of the Week and in several series. In 1968 she became the first African American actress to be featured on Peyton Place. In 1970 she starred in the critically acclaimed play Boesman and Lena.

Promoting black heritage

Dee and Davis collaborated on several projects designed to promote black heritage in general and other black artists in particular. In 1974 they produced The Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Story Hour for the National Black Network. In 1981 they produced the series With Ossie and Ruby for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

Dee found this work particularly satisfying because she got to travel the country talking to authors and others who could put the black experience in perspective. She believes that the series made black people look at themselves outside of the problems of racism (believing that one race is superior to another race).

Took up civil rights causes

Issues of equality and civil rights have long been a concern of Dee's. In 1953 she became well-known for denouncing (openly expressing strong disapproval) the U.S. government's decision to execute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for wartime spying. This experience helped Dee realize that racism and discrimination (treating people differently based on race, gender, or nationality) were not exclusively black experiences.

Dee and Davis were involved in and supported several other civil rights protests and causes, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington. In 1970 the National Urban League honored them with the Frederick Douglass Award for distinguished leadership toward equal opportunity.

In 1999 Dee and Davis were arrested for protesting the fatal shooting of an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, by white police officers of the New York City Police Department.

Other achievements

Dee's remarkable acting talent has endured over the years. Director Spike Lee cast Dee in his 1989 film Do the Right Thing. In 1990 Dee appeared in the television movie The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson. In 1991 Dee won an Emmy for Decoration Day, and in 1994 she appeared in the television movie version of Stephen King's The Stand.

Dee also has established the Ruby Dee Scholarship in Dramatic Art. The scholarship is awarded to talented young black women who want to become established in the acting profession. In 1988 Ebony magazine featured Dee and Davis as one of "Three Great Love Stories." Both she and Davis donate money and countless hours of time to causes in which they believe.

On March 11, 2001, Dee and Davis received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. At that time, they had been married and worked together for fifty-two years.

For More Information

Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Film and Television. New York: Garland, 1988.

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, and Bucks. New York: Viking, 1973.

Davis, Ossie, and Ruby Dee. With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. New York: W. Morrow, 1998.

Dee, Ruby. My One Good Nerve. New York: J. Wiley & Sons, 1999.

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