Ruby Dee, an icon of stage, screen and television, role model for women globally, activist for people’s causes and a beloved humanitarian, was honored by The Coalition of Theatres of Color, Tuesday, June 28 at an afternoon reception hosted by the Coalition’s Brooklyn delegation, The Billie Holiday Theatre and The Paul Robeson Theatre in Brooklyn.
Held at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Bedford Stuyvesant, the tribute was the third in a series of recent Coalition events, designed by chair Woodie King, honoring pioneers and veterans of the stage who are committed to sustaining the black theater heritage. Previous honorees were Gertrude Jeannette of the Hadley Players in Harlem and actor Arthur French of Queens.
“You can’t honor Ruby Dee enough,” said Marjorie Moon, the Coalition’s Vice Chair. Yet, the Coalition did their best. Gifts included: Artwork by the major artist Otto Neal, special tributes including a recitation of “A Poem for Ruby Dee” by its writer, the revered poet-playwright Sonia Sanchez; soul-stirring music by award-winning actress-vocalist Ebony Jo-Ann; a moving reading of selections from Miss Dee’s “My One Good Nerve” by Peggy Alston, an original company member of the Billie Holiday Theater’s Resident Acting Company and currently Restoration Corporation’s director of the Youth Arts Academy; resolutions, proclamations, citations or messages from the local to the Federal, including Congressman Edolphus Towns, New York Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Brooklyn’s Borough President Marty Markowitz, New York City Councilmen Al Vann and Charles Barron, and a dozen long-stemmed yellow roses from New York State Assemblywoman Annette Robinson.
Nearly 200 people packed the community room and lobby area of Restoration Plaza that houses the Billie Holiday Theatre, creating the intimate and up-close atmosphere of a Little Theatre, complete with poster-size images of dramatic scenes from some of Ms. Dee’s many powerful portrayals in such productions as: Anna Lucasta, My One Good Nerve, Raisin in the Sun, and The American Shakespeare production of King Lear.
The Brooklyn Coalition’s “collectors’ item” event programs featured color images of some of Ms. Dee’s other unforgettable portrayals, including a still from Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” of the Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated actress and Samuel Jackson, in the roles of Mrs. Purify and her son, Gator.
The “audience” comprised an intergenerational mix unlike no other in attendance at an event in Miss Dee’s honor. The young teen daughters of thespian and conscious rap artist Mos Def, a friend of Miss Dee’s, introduced themselves to publishing and Civil Rights legend Esther Cooper Jackson, 93, founder with her husband James Jackson of the groundbreaking national “Freedomways” periodicals. Mrs. Jackson has been a friend of Ms. Dee’s for more than 60 years.
Sister Sonia Sanchez, a friend since the poets’ theatre going days together in the ’70’s, said in a telephone interview yesterday, “When Ruby opens her mouth, I like to say that it’s the thunder of angels. She is the epitome of a woman who has learned her craft and performed it well. She is one of the great minds of the 20th century by her presence, her dignity and her work. I am so happy to have been a part of this warm and lovely event to honor such a great woman as Ruby Dee.”
Sister Sonia traveled from Philadelphia to participate in the event, and was met at the station by Dr. Brenda M. Greene, Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College.
With regard to the Coalition of Theatres of Color, Miss Sanchez said, “I love supporting efforts like the Coalition of Theatres of Color. This organization of community-based theaters is at the frontlines, working in the neighborhoods where people live, bringing culture to them. Coming out of the ’60’s, it is important that we (the artists) are always there for the community, as this is the work that needs to be done.”
“We are saluting Ms. Dee for her monumental impact as an artist and her tenacious vocal advocacy on behalf of the theatrical community,” said Marjorie Moon, executive director of the Billie Holiday Theatre which celebrates its 40th anniversary next year.
“Ruby Dee is more than an icon, she is authentic, a role model – not just on stage, but also behind the scenes,” said Dr. Josephine English, MD, founder of The Paul Robeson Theater, currently celebrating its 30th year.
Miss Dee, sitting regally beneath an enlarged photograph of her in 1946 on tour in the lead role of Anna Lucasta, was visibly moved by the Coalition celebration. At the program’s end, her thank you embraced the Coalition, all who were present, all who bestowed gifts, all who wanted to come and could not, all those on whose shoulders she stands, strong women like her stepmother and all “the steps” it took to get to yesterday, the ancestors and the Kings and Queens of black theater, heralded and unknown.
The guests responded with a standing ovation.
Of note, Miss Dee’s fine griot memory of the chapters and players in the art known as Black Theater is unparalleled. Her sharp knowledge of the history – and generous sharing of untold stories – enthralled the audience members, and in itself was a gift. Miss Moon reiterated, “We can not honor Miss Dee enough; she sets the stage for giving.”
Miss Dee is a founding member of the Coalition of Theatres of Color and a board member of the Billie Holiday Theatre. The Oscar-nominated, Emmy winning actress/writer; winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild, was awarded a Doctor of Arts honorary degree earlier this month from Dartmouth. She began her career in the lead role of the legendary American Negro Theater production of Anna Lucasta. A graduate of Hunter College, she made her Broadway debut in the 1943 drama South Pacific. In 1946, she was featured in the Broadway production, Jeb, where she met the star in the title role, Ossie Davis. Her other stage work included: Lutiebelle in Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorious; Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun; Lena in Boesman and Lena, for which she received and Obie and a Drama Desk award; and Mary Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Her credits in television and film include Anna Lucasta, Wedding Band, St. Lucy’s Eyes, The Jackie Robinson Story, St. Louis Blues, A Raisin in the Sun, Uptight (which she co-wrote), Buck and the Preacher, Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Peyton Place, Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Stand, Roots: The Next Generation and Having Our Say.
She has received several Emmy nominations, and in 1991, won an Emmy for her performance in Decoration Day. Ms Dee starred in American Gangster for which she received a Screen Actors Guild award and her first Academy award nomination in 2008. In 1994, Ms. Dee and Mr. Davis were presented with The Academy of Television Arts and Science’s Silver Circle Award. The following year, they officially became “national treasures” when they received the National Medal of Arts. In 2000, they were presented the Screen Actors Guild’s Life Achievement Award. The couple has also been honored with The Marian Anderson Award and the Screen Actors Lifetime Achievement Award. They are inductees in the Theater Hall of Fame as well as the NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame. They received John F. Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. Ms. Dee is active in the NAACP, CORE, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Southern Christian Leadership Council and many more progressive organizations.
The Coalition of Theatres of Color (CTC) is a non-profit community of renowned multi-cultural theatre arts organizations in New York State. These institutions have joined forces to ensure sustainability and longevity of theatre of color in multicultural communities. Each institution brings over 25 years of artistic achievement with critically acclaimed and award-winning work and for nurturing the artistry of some of the world’s finest actors, directors, playwrights, producers, musicians and choreographers. New York City theatres are Billie Holiday Theatre, Black Spectrum Theatre, H.A.D.L.E.Y Players, National Black Theatre, New Federal Theatre, New Heritage Theatre, Negro Ensemble Company and Paul Robeson Theatre. Acclaimed producer Woodie King is chairman of CTC, Carl Clay is vice chair and Marjorie Moon, executive producer, Billie Holiday Theatre, serves as second vice chair. CTC is supported through grants from the New York City Council Committee and The New York Community Trust.
On behalf of the entire Coalition of Theatres, Mr. King thanked Ms. Dee for her contributions to black theater behind the scenes, underscoring the Dee-Davis legacy of humanitarianism: on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 the couple donated a total of some $240,000 to 12 community theatres. To a round of applause, Woodie King also announced that the New York City Council had restored cuts to the Coalition’s 2012 budget.