Ruby Dee's legacy of activism, acting mourned

MARK KENNEDY AP Drama Writer Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- For Ruby Dee, acting and activism weren't contradictory things. They were inseparable, and they were intertwined.

The African-American actress, who earned lead roles in movies and on Broadway, also spent her life fighting against injustice, even emceeing the 1963 March on Washington and protesting apartheid in South Africa.

"We are image makers. Why can't we image makers become peacemakers, too?" she asked after she and her husband, Ossie Davis, accepted the Screen Actors Guild Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2000.

That legacy of entertaining and pushing for change -- in addition to the epic love affair with Davis -- made Dee, who died at age 91 in her New Rochelle home on Wednesday night, a beloved figure in America and beyond. Broadway theaters will dim their lights in her honor Friday night.

As a sign of how influential Dee has been to generations of performers, she was thanked twice from the podium at Sunday's Tony Awards, by six-time winner Audra McDonald and new Tony winner director Kenny Leon.

"She will be missed but never forgotten as she lives on in many of us," Leon said in a statement Thursday, noting Dee's death came just weeks after that of Maya Angelou. "Maya and Ruby leave us only days apart -- those two women with four letter names instructed us on how to live."

Dee's long career earned her an Emmy, a Grammy, two Screen Actors Guild awards, the NAACP Image Award, Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Art and the National Civil Rights Museum's Lifetime Achievement Award. She got an Oscar nomination at age 83 for best supporting actress for her role in the 2007 film "American Gangster."

Dee, born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, moved to Harlem with her family as an infant.

She attended her first protests as a child, joining picket lines to rail against discriminatory hiring practices. She graduated from a highly competitive high school and enrolled in college but longed to act.

"I wanted to be an actor, but the chances for success did not look promising," she wrote in their autobiography.

But in 1940 she got a part in a Harlem production of a new play, "On Strivers Row," which she later called "one giant step" to becoming a person and a performer.

In 1965, she became the first black woman to play lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. She won an Obie Award for the title role in Athol Fugard's "Boesman and Lena" and a Drama Desk Award for her role in "Wedding Band."

On television, Dee was a leading cast member on the soap operas "Guiding Light" and "Peyton Place," a rare sight for a black actress in the 1950s and 60s. As she aged, her career did not ebb. She was the voice of wisdom and reason as Mother Sister in 1989's "Do the Right Thing" and won an Emmy as supporting actress in a miniseries or special for 1990's "Decoration Day."

Most recently, Dee performed her one-woman stage show, "My One Good Nerve: A Visit With Ruby Dee," in theaters across the country.

She is survived by three children and seven grandchildren. Her family and friends surrounded her when she died, Nora Davis Day said.

"We have had her for so long and we loved her so much," Day said. "We gave her our permission to set sail. She opened her eyes, closed her eyes and away she went."

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AP Writer Karen Matthews contributed to this report.

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