Ruby Dee was one of the greats. When she knelt near her dying son acting as Lucinda Purify in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” and said, “Mama’s here. Mama’s here,” it was a moment of utter power.
She is not here anymore. “We have had her for so long and we loved her so much,” Her daughter, Nora Davis Day, said. “She took her final bow last night at home surrounded by her children and grandchildren.”
Day added: “We gave her our permission to set sail. She opened her eyes, closed her eyes and away she went.”
Dee was 91 when she died at home in New Rochelle, N.Y., on Wednesday.
Like the recently departed poet Maya Angelou, it was her destiny to have an unlikely career of broad-ranging accomplishment.
When I think of Dee and her husband of 56 years, actor Ossie Davis, I think of artists who applied just as much creativity to their lives as to performing. They started their own production company rather than wait around for others to cast them. Ernmalyn Productions Company Inc. produced “Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum”; “A Walk Through the 20th Century with Bill Moyers”; and the critically acclaimed series, “With Ossie and Ruby.”
Beside her prolific acting career in film, radio, television, and theater, Dee worked for civil rights, and was an author. “I love language and authors and music and how they can all interconnect. As an actor, I want to explore life and people rhythms and the sounds in the silences,” she said, in a 2005 profile for the New York Writer’s Institute.
Another of her indelible performances was as Mother Sister in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Davis plays a shambling neighborhood drunk, whom she scolds from her window. At first they seem to be comic figures. Gradually their deep love, respect, and regret is revealed.
The love and respect between the two artists seems connected to their shared activism.
She and her late husband were frequent collaborators. Their partnership rivaled the achievements of other celebrated acting couples. But they were more than performers; they were also activists who fought for civil rights, particularly for blacks.
Dee and Davis served as masters of ceremonies for the historic 1963 March on Washington and she spoke at both the funerals for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X.
The couple’s battle in that arena was lifelong: In 1999, the couple was arrested while protesting the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, by New York City police.
“We used the arts as part of our struggle,” she said in 2006. “Ossie said he knew he had to conduct himself differently with skill and thought.”
In 1998, the pair celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and an even longer association in show business with the publication of a dual autobiography, “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”
Davis died in February 2005.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.