When Ruby Dee was in high school, she couldn’t get a part in the drama club’s upcoming production.
Nothing personal, the club’s head explained: There were just no roles for maids.
“I never inquired again,” Dee later wrote. “And I never went to see any plays there either.”
A Harlem girl who wrote poetry but waded into a few street fights, Dee bounced back quickly. Over more than seven decades, she became one of the most highly regarded performers in American drama, even while struggling to carve out roles deeper than the eye-rolling maids and long-suffering, all-forgiving mother figures that were the industry standard for black actresses.
Dee, who with her late husband Ossie Davis emceed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington and was celebrated for her civil rights activism as well as for her powerful performances, died Wednesday in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91.
Her death from age-related causes was confirmed by her Los Angeles agent, Michael Livingston.
Dee started acting in 1940 with the American Negro Theatre, a troupe headquartered in the basement of a Harlem public library. She later attained national stature with the stage and screen versions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play about three generations of a black family in Chicago struggling with the white community and one another.
The play — the first written by a black woman to reach Broadway — featured Dee as Ruth Younger, an exhausted housemaid and pregnant mother trying to keep her fractious clan together. In his 1959 review, the New York Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr praised Dee for her portrayal of a beleaguered woman “holding back the tartness that is always ready at the edge of her tongue.”
“With a light shift of her voice, she commands a rebellious child to kiss her goodbye; with an unobtrusive gesture, she flicks an ironing board from a sofa so that a lounging and slightly fatuous college boy can relax in a tenement,” Kerr wrote. “Miss Dee is lovely to watch, if you can catch her rustling from mood to mood as the bitterness around her grows.”
After a lifetime in dozens of films that included “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950) and the Spike Lee productions “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and “Jungle Fever” (1991), she received her first Academy Award nomination in 2008 for her work in “American Gangster,” the story of a high-rolling black drug lord in New York.
Nominated at age 83 in the supporting actress category, Dee was on screen for less than 10 minutes. Even so, she conveyed a powerful impression of barely controlled outrage, climaxing with a sharp slap to the face of her smooth, cop-killing son Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington.
“It’s not far from my nature to whack,” she told USA Today in 2008.
While Dee did not get the Oscar, she received numerous awards for her stage and television work.
In 1991 she won an Emmy for her performance in “Decoration Day” as the testy housekeeper for a retired Georgia judge played by James Garner. In 2000 she and Davis received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award — an occasion they used to lecture Hollywood about social responsibility.
“Why can’t we image makers become peacemakers too?” Dee asked in accepting the award. “Why cannot we, in such a time as this, use all the magic of our vaunted powers to lift the pistol from the schoolboy’s backpack?”
Dee, whose voice was described as silken in contrast to her husband’s rich baritone, was the first African-American woman to play major roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. In 1965, she was Cordelia in “King Lear” and Katherina in “Taming of the Shrew.”
But, as she told the Chicago Tribune in 1995, being a “first” was sometimes a bittersweet victory for African Americans.
“One should whisper that,” she said. “One shouldn’t be proud that the sum total of the body of the American mentality would permit such unfairness for so long.”
Dee’s activism started when she spoke out at a rally for a New York music teacher who killed herself after funding cuts eliminated her job. Dee, her student, was 11 at the time.
In 1953 she publicly protested the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the New York couple convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Dee was branded a “fellow traveler” — a Communist sympathizer — for supporting them.
In the wake of the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four young black girls, she and Davis organized a boycott of Christmas shopping, urging Americans to support civil rights groups instead. In 1965 they marched for civil rights in Selma, Ala. In 1999 they were arrested as they protested the fatal shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police officers.
Described by the Washington Post as “the first couple” of the civil rights movement, they were friendly with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and many other black leaders. Their daughter Nora Davis Day once told an interviewer about coming downstairs at the family home in New Rochelle to find Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton asleep on the living room sofa.
Born Oct. 27, 1922, in Cleveland, Ruby Ann Wallace was raised in New York City, where her father worked as a waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad and her stepmother took in boarders to make ends meet.
A graduate of Hunter High School in Manhattan, Dee attended Hunter College and received a bachelor’s degree in languages, focusing on French and Spanish.
After an early marriage ended in divorce in 1945, she met Davis the next year. They were appearing together in “Jeb,” a short-lived Broadway play about a black war hero coming home. Davis, who played the lead, struck her as a gawky bumpkin in ill-fitting clothes — “strictly country,” she later joked to an interviewer.
When he proposed in a telegram two years later, her acceptance spoke volumes about a relationship steeped in humor.
“Well, OK,” she told him, “but don’t do me no favors!”
In 1946 and 1947, Davis and Dee starred in the popular play “Anna Lucasta” and took it on the road. At its Hollywood opening, Charlie Chaplin was so impressed he vowed to make it a movie. He did — but he replaced the play’s all-black cast with white actors, including Paulette Goddard, the star he had secretly married.
Over the next decades Dee landed many film roles, gaining national attention in 1950 as Jackie Robinson’s supportive wife Rachel in “The Jackie Robinson Story.” The famous ballplayer played himself.
The following year Dee played a slave in “The Tall Target,” a film based on a failed 1861 plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
While Dee’s reputation grew, her roles continued to inhibit her.
“She’d run through the perfect wife-girlfriend bit to the point where she was — as one newspaper called her — ‘the Negro June Allyson,’ ” wrote film historian Donald Bogle in “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films.”
“She always seemed to force a smile while standing by nervously and accepting whatever her men might throw her way,” he wrote. “Her audience longed to see her break loose.”
That she did, not only with “A Raisin in the Sun” but also in the 1970 Broadway production of Athol Fugard’s “Boesman and Lena,” a South African play about the struggles of a homeless, mixed-race couple.
“With Lena, I am suddenly, gloriously free,” Dee told the New York Times. “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.”
New York Times critic Clive Barnes lauded Dee for “the finest performance I have ever seen.”
“You have no sense of someone portraying a role,” he wrote. “Her manner, her entire being have a quality of wholeness that is rarely encountered in the theater.”
Over the years Dee and Davis appeared together in plays, TV productions and a half-dozen films, including “Gone Are the Days!,” a 1963 adaptation of Davis’ play “Purlie Victorious.” In 1981 they produced “With Ossie and Ruby,” a PBS series of chats about the African-American experience with writers and performers around the U.S.
Dee also made regular appearances on TV soap operas including “The Guiding Light” and “Peyton Place.”
In 1989, director Spike Lee introduced the couple to a new generation of fans in “Do the Right Thing,” a story about street life and racial tensions in a New York neighborhood. As Mother Sister, Dee is a gossipy widow. As Da Mayor, Davis roams the streets, drinking beer and philosophizing.
Together they “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,” wrote critic Terrence Rafferty in the New Yorker.
In 1998 and 1999 Dee staged a national tour of “My One Good Nerve,” a one-woman show highlighting the stories and poems she wrote and published in a book of the same name.
In 2004 she and Davis received the Kennedy Center Honors for their contributions to the performing arts.
On Feb. 4, 2005, Davis, who had a history of heart problems, was found dead in his Miami Beach hotel room. At 87, he had been working on a film called “Retirement.”
At the time Dee was on location in New Zealand for “No. 2,” a film about an extended Fijian family, with Dee as the matriarch.
In their joint memoir, they left instructions for their cremation.
“Whoever goes first will wait for the other,” they wrote. “When we are united at last, we want the family to say goodbye and seal the urn forever. Then on the side, in letters not too bold but not too modest either, we want the following inscription: ‘Ruby and Ossie — In This Thing Together.’ “
Dee’s survivors include son Guy Davis, daughters Nora Davis Day and Hasna Davis Muhammad and seven grandchildren.