Dee, Ruby (1923—)

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Dee, Ruby (1923—)

African-American actress, winner of an Obie and two Drama Desk awards, known for her dedication in the cause of civil rights. Born Ruby Ann Wallace on October 27, 1923, in Cleveland, Ohio; one of four children of Marshall Edward (a porter and waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad) and Emma (Benson) Wallace; attended public schools in Harlem; graduated from Hunter High School, New York City; B.A. from Hunter College; married Ossie Davis (an actor), on December 9, 1948; children: two daughters, Nora Davis and LaVerne Davis ; one son, Guy Davis.

Selected stage credits:

first appeared on stage with the American Negro Theater (at Library Theater) in Natural Man (1941), Starlight (1942), and Three's a Family (1943); made Broadway debut as Ruth in Howard Rigsby and Dorothy Heyward's South Pacific (Cort Theater, 1943); appeared in title role of Anna Lucasta (Mansfield Theater, 1944); portrayed Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (Ethel Barrymore Theater, 1959), Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in Purlie Victorious (Cort Theater, 1961), Lena in Boesman and Lena (1970); appeared in Alice Childress' Wedding Band (1973).


No Way Out (1950); The Jackie Robinson Story (1950); The Tall Target (1951); Go Man Go! (1954); Edge of the City (1957); St. Louis Blues (1958); Virgin Island (1960); A Raisin in the Sun (1961); Take a Giant Step (1963); Gone Are the Days! (Purlie Victorious, 1963); The Balcony (1963); The Incident (1967); Uptight (1968); Buck and the Preacher (1972); (cameo) Black Girl (1972); Countdown at Kusini (US/Nigeria, 1976); Do the Right Thing (1988).

Elected to the Theater Hall of Fame in 1988, Ruby Dee has combined an extraordinary career as an actress with writing and an ongoing commitment to civil rights. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she was raised in New York's Harlem, where the family moved when she was an infant. Her mother Emma Wallace , a schoolteacher, was determined that her children would amount to something and saw to it that music and literature had a prominent place in their lives. Dee later described herself as a shy, non-aggressive child, but added: "I had wild feelings churning inside me I wanted to express." She became interested in acting in high school after her classmates applauded her classroom reading from a play. While studying languages at Hunter College, she apprenticed with the American Negro Theater, then housed in the basement of the West 135th Street branch of the New York

Public Library. She made her earliest stage appearances at the Library Theater, in productions of Natural Man (1941), Starlight (1942), and Three's a Family (1943). In December 1943, she made her Broadway debut in the short-lived World War II drama, South Pacific, by Howard Rigby and Dorothy Heyward (no relation to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the same name). Her performance in the title role of Philip Yordan's Anna Lucasta (1944), about a streetwalker transformed by true love, brought her to the attention of the critics, who also praised her portrayal of Marcy in the all-black production of A Long Way from Home (1948), an adaptation of Maxim Gorki's The Lower Depths. In 1948, during a break in rehearsals for Smile of the World, Dee married actor Ossie Davis, whom she had known since 1946.

During the 1950s, Dee continued to perform on the stage while launching her film career, which has included notable roles in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), Edge of the City (1957), and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1988). In 1959, Dee reached a high point in her stage career as Ruth Younger in Lorraine Hansberry 's prize-winning play, A Raisin in the Sun, the story of a struggling black family living in a Chicago tenement. The critics agreed that as the long-suffering wife and daughter-in-law, a role she repeated in the movie, Dee turned in an inspired yet seemingly effortless performance. She followed that success with a role opposite her husband in Purlie Victorious (1961), a satire on black-white relationships in the South, which Davis also wrote. She continued to expand her acting repertoire at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, playing Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew (1965) and Cordelia in King Lear (1965). Other ventures into the classics have included starring performances at the Ypsilanti (Michigan) Greek Theater and the University of Michigan's professional theater program: she appeared with Bert Lahr in Aristophanes' The Birds (1966) and played Gertrude in Hamlet (1975), opposite Sam Waterston.

Dee turned in a riveting performance in Athol Fugard's important play Boesman and Lena (1970), about the plight of South Africa's Cape Coloureds—people of mixed race. As Lena, the wife of a defeated brute of a husband, Dee's portrayal impressed the critics. Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times (June 23, 1970): "It is complete—it has the quickness of life about it. Never for a moment do you think she is acting—even, and this is the trick, when she is at her most stagey.… Her frail sparrow-figure, her bright, unsubdued eyes, her voice, … her manner, her entire being, have a quality of wholeness that is rarely encountered in the theater." For Dee, who won the Obie and Drama Desk Award for the role, playing Lena was a liberating experience, freeing her from her stereotyped image as the black "June Allyson ." In an interview with Patricia Bosworth for The New York Times, Dee remarked, "I understand Lena. I relate to her particular reality because it is mine and every black woman's.… With Lena I am suddenly, gloriously free." She received a second Drama Desk Award in 1973 for her performance in Alice Childress ' Wedding Band.

Dee made her television debut in 1960 in "Actor's Choice" (on Camera Three) and went on to regular appearances as a guest performer. She received an Emmy nomination for her performance in an episode of "East Side, West Side," and also appeared with her husband on National Education Television programs, including the "History of the Negro People."

Dee's talent is not confined to acting; she has published a book of poetry called Child Glow and Other Poems (1973) and has written several plays, including Twin Bit Gardens (1976), the musical Take It from the Top (1979), and Zora Is My Name (1983), about Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston . She also co-authored and starred in the film Uptight (1969).

Throughout her career, along with her husband, Dee has also focused much of her time to racial equality, serving on national committees and performing in benefits to raise money for civil rights and other related causes. To assist talented young black actresses, she has established the Ruby Dee Scholarship in Dramatic Art. In May 1970, she and Ossie Davis were presented the Frederick Douglass Award by the New York Urban League for bringing a "sense of fervor and pride to countless millions." In 1975, they were the recipients of Actors Equity's Paul Robeson Citation for their "outstanding creative contributions in the performing arts and to society at large."

In a show business marriage that has defied the statistics for longevity, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis have produced three children, two daughters, Nora and LaVerne, and a son, Guy. She has referred to Ossie as her "best friend," and he has described her as a "primitive," a woman "whose style of life is original, not derivative."


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

McGill, Raymond D., ed. Notable Names in the American Theater. Clifton, NJ: James T. White, 1976.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1970.

suggested reading:

Dee, Ruby, and Ossie Davis. With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. NY: Morrow, 1998.

Dee, Ruby. My One Good Nerve (a collection of verse based on her one-woman show of that title), Wiley, 1998.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts