(1922–2014) Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, raised in Harlem, the award-
winning actress maintained fond and active ties to Cleveland, where she still had family, throughout her career. A mural bearing her likeness dominates the west wall of Karamu’s theater, the historic multi-racial performance space she loved and supported over a long and distinguished career on stage and television, and in film. Her debut on a Cleveland stage was at the Hanna Theater, in a touring production of Anna Lucasta in the late 1940s.
She often found time to return to Cleveland, appearing at both Playhouse Square (in the Great Lakes Theater production of Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders) and Karamu, where Artistic Director Terence Spivey worked with Dee twice. “She was so giving with young artists, and so giving with me,” said Spivey. “She just wanted to be part of the ensemble. It wasn’t about her being a legend. It was about, ‘Let me fit in with what you’re doing here.’” In 1968, she made a movie here that she had co-written called Uptight, a meditation on race, family and loyalty.
Dee’s first major career breakthrough came in 1946 with the title role in the American Negro Theater’s Broadway production of Anna Lucasta. She received national recognition for her role in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) and in 1959 landed a starring role on Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, earning great acclaim for her portrayal of Ruth Younger, opposite Sidney Poitier as her husband. Two years later, the pair reprised their roles in the film version.
In 1965, Dee made history with the American Shakespeare Festival, becoming the first black actress to portray a lead role in the festival, playing both Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear . In 1969, she appeared in 20 episodes of Peyton Place, and as Cora Sanders, a Marxist college professor clearly inspired by the real-life activist Angela Y. Davis, in Season 1/Episode 14 of Police Woman. She played Queen Haley in the 1979 mini-series Roots: The Next Generations.
Dee was nominated for eight Emmy awards (including a guest appearance in the “Skylark” episode of China Beach), winning for her role in the 1990 made-for-TV movie Decoration Day. She appeared in Spike Lee’s acclaimed 1989 film Do the Right Thing and his 1991 film Jungle Fever. In 1995, she and husband Ossie Davis, who were both also active participants in the Civil Rights Movement (and close friends of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X), were awarded the National Medal of Arts, and in 2004, Kennedy Center Honors.
Dee narrated a series of WPA slave narratives in the 2003 HBO film Unchained Memories. In 2007 she and Ossie shared the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album with former President Jimmy Carter; and in 2008, Dee received an Oscar nomination for playing Mama Lucas in the hit film American Gangster. She won the Screen Actors Guild award for the same performance.
Ruby Dee in Great Lakes Theater Festival’s world premiere of Adrienne Kennedy’s play “Ohio State Murders,” staged by Gerald Freedman (1992). GLTF commissioned Kennedy to write the play in 1989. Photo by Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy Great Lakes Theater.
By Carl Van Vechten – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID van.5a51897. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org