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Ruby Dee on Legendary Career, Ossie Davis


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, can I just tell you? I lost a former colleague and a mentor to leukemia and I'd like to tell you about her.

But first, it may be a big weekend at the box office. Denzel Washington is playing the title role in "American Gangster" and all. That gangster is a ruthless drug lord and just about the only person to put the fear into Denzel's fearsome character is his mother, played by Ruby Dee. Indeed, it's likely that in real life, too, Ruby Dee had a significant impact on the life of Denzel Washington.

Ruby Dee set the standard for African-American actors and for artists all over the world through her own work and in her on and off-screen partnership with the equally legendary Ossie Davis, her late husband. She's influenced a generation of actors on stage and in film.

Just days after celebrating her birthday, we are so pleased to have Ruby Dee join us from New York for Wisdom Watch conversation. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. RUBY DEE (Actress; Writer; Activist): Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: Now I know that it's rude to ask a lady her age, but I will say that you have clearly attained senior diva status.

Ms. DEE: Yes, I'm clearly a senior.

MARTIN: And at an age when many actors are slowing down, you seem as busy as ever. Are the roles you want finally coming your way? Are people making you offers you just can't refuse?

Ms. DEE: Well, yes, there are some very nice offers coming to me and also I've been asked to reprise a couple of other things. I've written a couple of musicals. And I just won a Grammy this year for a book of my husband's letters and essays and speeches and things like that that we've got him reluctantly to help us select a little before he took that final trip of his. And it won a Grammy for - in the Spoken Word category, tying with Jimmy Carter and…

MARTIN: Is this your first Grammy?

Ms. DEE: It was my first Grammy, yes.

MARTIN: And, of course, you've got a new movie coming out this Friday and it stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and it opens - it's called "American Gangster." Let's play a short clip.

(Soundbite of movie "American Gangster")

Ms. DEE: (As Mama Lucas) You don't shoot cops unintelligible). Eva knows it.

Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): (As Frank Lucas) All right, Mama.

Ms. DEE: (As Mama) The only one who doesn't seem to know is you.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank) All right, Mama. I got to go. I ain't going to shoot, I promise you. I ain't going to shoot...

Ms. DEE: (As Mama) I never asked you where all this came from because I didn't want to hear you lying to me.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank) Because I don't want you to worry about it. Now come on, I got to go.

Ms. DEE: (As Mama) Please don't lie to me.

MARTIN: That's intense.

Ms. DEE: Oh, my, yes. I think about that scene. This whole film, I mean, resonates with me in a strange way - not a strange way…

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. This seems as far a field from you. (Unintelligible).

Ms. DEE: No, it's not far a field. This is...

MARTIN: But what attracted you to it?

Ms. DEE: I grew up in the domain where this film deals with. I grew up in Harlem. In the film, I see some of the very streets I live on. So if this film is where I come from, I don't know who I would be if I weren't this child from Harlem, this woman from Harlem. It's in me so deep, and the film reminded me of the reality of the horror of the people lost in terms of hope, living their lives in positive ways because of racism and all that, you know.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that. When you were growing up, I wonder what future you saw for yourself. What did you envision? What did you dream?

Ms. DEE: My dream was I was going to be an actor. Racism occurred to me. It dawned on me that I would not be an actor. It occurred to me that I was not white. It occurred to me that being what they call colored, being a Negro, was some kind of a disadvantage. All those things I knew as a kid and that one of these days, I was going to run away, and my first heroes were Franchot Tone and Robert Taylor and - because I didn't know any black screen idols, you know, that I see today, you know.

MARTIN: What did your parents think of your plan to become an actor? At some point, people didn't think that was a terribly respectable way to earn a living. What did they think about it?

Ms. DEE: Oh, well, my mother - my stepmother, really, she herself have been what they call an elocutionist. And she was the one who first encouraged me to write poetry, because she used to read it to us. And then when I began to write when I was nine years old, my first poem was published in the Amsterdam News. I called it "The Graveyard." Can you imagine? That was my first poem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DEE: It's so quiet and lonely, a place for dead people only. Too late to live, when all they had to give is lay beneath the sod. And they published it. That was very first poem. So we didn't go to films. We didn't go to - so I learned about film and entertainment business on the sly, but…

MARTIN: And it was while you were at Hunter Coll1ege, wasn't it, that you joined the American Negro Theater?

Ms. DEE: Yes.

MARTIN: Which is where you met, you know, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte…

Ms. DEE: Yes, you do and - those were the days.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. And theater is how you met your husband, yes?

Ms. DEE: Yes. I'm - he was with another group similar to the one that I was part of, called Rose McClendon Players. And they were looking for a young man, a soldier to do the lead in this play called "Jeb," and that's how I happen to meet Ossie, at a rehearsal. You know, this long, gangly man that kind of spilled along, you know, sort of like all bones and an Adam's apple, you know. That's how I happened to meet Ossie.

MARTIN: Well, what did you like about Ossie Davis when you first met him?

Ms. DEE: I thought he looked very hungry. He looked so poverty stricken or something. I think that's what I was thinking, because he had on clothes that didn't fit him. But he had a very nice smile. So he knew about hunger. He knew about suffering. He knew about riding the rails and tramping through cities, getting somewhere. And it was on the days when a lot of people slept in the park, and he was one of them before, you know…

MARTIN: Right.

Ms. DEE: …the city cracked down. But that didn't seem to bother him. I told him, I said, oh Ossie, you only did that because it's romantic, you know. And he was a poet, too - a poet sleeping in the park, you know. After we got married, we worked steadily along for a while at something, at street corners and in churches and clubs and lodges and black civil rights organizations, and as I said, for unions because that was his main subject of conversation since I can remember him.

MARTIN: I want to talk more about that. But I just need to pause just briefly to say if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the legendary actress Ruby Dee, star of film, stage and television.

I wanted to talk about a role for which many people of a certain age surely know you. And that is from "Raising in the Sun," and I want to play a short clip.

(Soundbite of stage play, "A Raisin in the Sun")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Walter Lee Younger) I'm trying to talk to you about myself. And all you can say is eat them, damn it, and go to work.

Ms. DEE: (As Ruth Younger) Honey, you never say nothing new. I listen to you every day, every night and every morning, and you never say nothing new. So you would rather be Mr. Arnold than be his chauffer. So I would rather be living in Buckingham Palace.

Unidentified Man: (As Walter Lee) That is just what is wrong with the colored woman in this world. Don't understand about building their men up, making them feel like they're somebody, like they can do something.

Ms. DEE: (As Ruth) There are colored men who do things.

Unidentified Man: (As Walter Lee) No thanks to the colored woman.

Ms. DEE: (As Ruth) Well, being a colored woman, I guess, I can't help myself none.

MARTIN: When you hear that now, when you think about that role now, how does it make you feel?

Ms. DEE: Oh, I'm impressed with Lorraine Hansberry. She was a genius at whose feet I could sit. But I had questions, you know, and, although I loved "Raisin in the Sun," as I look back, so many things occurred to me. And the reality mixes with the story, because I remember when we - Ossie and I got married and we wanted to move into a little house we bought and a friend of mine - a white friend of mine - called me and said, Ruby, you don't want to move there. He said there's so many black people over there already. Why don't you move out so and so and so, where it's not integrated yet? So when I thought about that and I thought about "Raisin in the Sun," and I realized that I wouldn't want to integrate a neighborhood.

I don't want to have my children have to get dressed up to go out to say good morning and deserve to live among some other people. I want to be able to be free and take for granted that my neighbors like me and I like them. I didn't care about being integrated or accepted, and that was the one thing that bothered me about being in "Raising in the Sun." But as I grew old and began to work in the civil rights movement and became, quote, quote, "an activist," I don't remember when I really wasn't, you know.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me if you would about your, what you call your so-called quote, unquote, "activism." I'm wondering why you put it that way, because many - some people have shied away from social activism, fearing that it would hurt their careers as artists. I mean, surely, you're aware of this. And I wondered, you know, whereas you and your husband were both close friends of Martin Luther King, Jr. You were both emcees for the 1963 March on Washington. Ossie Davis gave the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral. Did you ever fear that your activism would harm your ability to work?

Ms. DEE: I'm thinking, in all honesty, I never thought about myself as an activist when we were coming along. I wasn't a joiner. You know, I love the people I love. I didn't care whether - they could be a Democrat, Republican, communist, you know, and anything but a racist, you know.

MARTIN: Yeah, but you grew up during the McCarthy era. Were either of you ever called before the House Un-American Activities Committee? Were you ever asked to testify against colleagues?

Ms. DEE: Oh, yes. Ossie was called, and I tried to get there, but I didn't have anybody to leave the babies. And so he got there, and he was explaining why I couldn't come and so forth. And the judge, at some point, she told somebody in the courtroom, look, get this man out of here. You know, he never even got his chance to deliver his - the speech he had prepared.

MARTIN: But I do want to ask if you were ever afraid. You grew up in a time when leaders were being cut down. Martin Luther King was killed. Robert F. Kennedy was killed. Malcolm X was killed - all people you knew. And you did have fellow artists who lost their livelihood because of their political involvements. Were you ever afraid?

Ms. DEE: No, not personally afraid, because nothing in my background surprised me. The white folks weren't getting lynched. We felt sorry for those people who were being abused, but they would just tasting a little teeny bit of what was racism and fascism and the horror of what was happening in the country.

MARTIN: One of the things that you and Ossie Davis did was write your own work when you couldn't find work that suited you. I'm thinking, of course, of "Pearly Victorias," a musical that Ossie Davis wrote. And then later on, there have been African-American filmmakers like Spike Lee who created roles with you in mind. I want to play a short clip from a film that I think may have introduced you to a younger generation, "Do the Right Thing."

(Soundbite of movie, "Do the Right Thing")

Ms. DEE: (As Mother Sister) You are ugly enough. Don't stare at me. The evil eye doesn't work on me.

Unidentified Man #1: Mother Sister, you've been talking about me for the 18 years. What I ever done to you?

Ms. DEE: (As Mother Sister) You a drunk fool.

Unidentified Man #2: (As Man) Besides that. The man don't bother nobody, and nobody don't bother the man. But you - the man…

Ms. DEE: Oh, my.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask how you feel about that, because on the one hand, some of the younger generation of filmmakers are offering more complete images of the African-American experience, but some people don't feel that that's any much of an improvement, you know. They replaced, you know, Coonan and Stepin Fetchit characters with more thuggishness, more coarseness. What do you think?

Ms. DEE: Well, I think what - Spike Lee made such a difference in terms of black filmmakers, the subtleties - those authors, those writers who write from love, and those who write from that lofty position of superiority, who write about those people. But Spike was writing about us. I felt he took aspects of the black experience in America and held it up for us to see. He tried to put it in perspective. He did put it in perspective in his unique way.

MARTIN: You have your own body of work. I think that everyone would recognize you, your voice, I mean, is one that, you know, is instantly recognizable. But you also have this incredible partnership with Ossie Davis over, you know, almost 60 years together. I just wonder what it's been like for you to carry on without him.

Ms. DEE: Oh, my. It's - I can't say it's been difficult because he loved me so much. And also I keep thinking every time I feel something well up in me that feels like it could mature into a tear or something, I have to stop it because he was very fond of saying, can I fix it? Ain't found it? Well, you got to down it and get from around it, you know. He wasn't a mourner, you know. And I don't know. I just, I have to keep on keeping on.

MARTIN: How would you like to be remembered?

Ms. DEE: If I could be - somebody could think of me and feel encouraged, I'd like to be remembered as - is in those little flashes of moments, I think, that we remember each other that pick us up from some moments of despair. That's how I'd like to be remembered, in the recollection to make the moment more bearable, if not enjoyable.

MARTIN: Ruby Dee, star of stage, film and television. Her latest movie is "American Gangster." It opens Friday. She was kind enough to join us from her office in New York. Ruby Dee, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. DEE: Oh, thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.