(from The New York Times, 12/23; via Pam Green.)

Ruby Dee

b. 1922

A lesson in grief and resilience, on-screen and in the streets.


By Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

There is the Ruby Dee of my childhood: In black and white, in “A Raisin in the Sun,” the grainy old movie that my middle-school teacher showed us to prepare us for our fall production of the play. As Ruth Younger, the young wife and almost matriarch of a hard-pressed black family living on the South Side of Chicago, Dee was supposed to appear worked over, resigned, deferred. We were just children, but my teacher told us to look hard at her acting. Did we see the flesh she gave to the role? We should try for that when it was our turn on the stage.

I remember lying on the hard carpet of our classroom and looking into Dee’s eyes. I struggled to understand why a woman as self-assured as Dee would dare show her vulnerabilities — her undone hair, her tenderness, her despair — with such abandon. But when Sidney Poitier, playing the role of Walter Lee Younger, her husband, a man “wacked up with bitterness” because of his low lot in life, berated her for being just a defeated, defeating colored woman, what upset me most was not the painful lie behind the insult but rather how impossibly misdirected his comments were. Dee, even in that shapeless, shabby robe and sorrowful role, steamed.

She could shoot daggers or tantalize, and all the while her eyes remained fixed. They projected an electric, heavy intention that went way beyond mere stagecraft. Ruth as played by Dee was a disavowal of all the easy, uncomplicated stereotypes projected onto black women.


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