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Ruby Dee - First Black Actress in American Shakespeare

Updated on September 30, 2019
Kenna McHugh profile image

I've written, contributed to books on film, and worked in the film industry. I like to share insights into the movie-making business.

Ossie and Ruby

Ruby Dee was not only an actress but a poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, and activist.

Civil Rights

Often beside her husband, the late and talented Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee is a multiple-winning actress. She lived through seven decades of accomplishments - first on stage and then on the silver screen. She lived to be an excellent ninety-one-year-old example of being a powerful woman.

Ruby Dee was a strong woman who held her own in adversity. She set a path for the future actresses of any color.

Participating in the civil rights movement came naturally for her. Ruby Dee inner strength came through during her performances as well as her participation in the civil rights movement. Her dear, friends were Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1970, Ruby earned the Frederick Douglass Award from the National Urban League for her civil rights work. She once said, "I never remember, like, saying, 'Well, I'm going to belong - join the civil rights movement.'"

"I never thought about myself as an activist when we were coming along. I love the people I love. I didn't care whether they could be a Democrat, Republican, communist... anything but a racist."

— Ruby Dee

Ruby Starred with Denzil Washington

Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress

Dee earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in "American Gangster" (2007) where she co-starred with Denzel Washington.

Directed and produced by Ridley Scott, the movie follows Frank Lucas, played by Washington, a hardened American gangster. The story is a fictional account of his criminal career. He smuggled heroin into the United States on planes coming back from the Vietnam War.

American Gangster

"I think all human beings have a godlike, divine power, only most of us don't tap into it."

— Ruby Dee


Born Ruby Ann Wallace, she kept her married name Dee after she married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in 1941. The marriage didn't last long, and she ended their marriage about three and a half years later in divorce and married Ossie Davis in 1948. Davis passed away in 2005. Their relationship held strong through their years together, participating in the civil rights movement and help other black artists succeed.

Ossie and Ruby at 1989 Cannes Festival

"I learned that having great sensitivity is important. But being strong is just as important."

— Ruby Dee

Long and Happy Life

Her life included an acting career on Broadway, film, radio, and even television. Both the white and black audiences cherished her skill and talent. Her long and happy life with Ossie stands out the most because they shared many interests, such as cultural and civil rights issues.

They spoke candidly about their marriage because their marriage lasted for such a long time. In one interview, they talked about having an open relationship, though neither acted on it. Ruby once said, "'Commitment' is a marvelous word."

Do The Right Thing

Her talent shines as Mother Sister in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. The 1989 drama-comedy launched Lee as a director, and he took on the role of Mookie. Ossie Davis also starred in the movie.

Davis and Dee

A Raisin in the Sun

Ruby Dee was not only an actress but a poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, and activist. She starred opposite Sydney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, where she originated the role Ruth Younger on the Broadway stage. Her list of books includes children’s books as well as memoirs and spiritual reflection.

Women's Rights Activist

A vibrant and gracious soul, Ruby supported and spoke about women's rights. She performed her poem “Call All Women” on the Sundance Channel.

The video shows her performing a version of the poem at a friend’s memorial service. The final words in her poem are hilarious because the words convey honesty.



As mentioned before, Ruby starred in several Shakespeare plays. Peers and audiences spoke highly of her natural aptitude and skill. Her first performance was Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew at the American Shakespeare festival in 1965. That same year she played Cordelia in King Lear. In 1975, she played Gertrude in Hamlet at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Because she was the first black actress to play a role in a Shakespeare play, she opened the door for many talented black actors.

© 2016 Kenna McHugh


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    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      14 months ago from Northern California

      Linda, You are absolutely correct. There is so much I could write about her. She is an amazing talent and woman. I hope to add more to my article soon.

    • profile image


      14 months ago

      What a great person! Ruby was such a great actress and paved the way for so many women of color. I never realized she did so much stage work, Shakespeare. I loved reading about her relationship with her husband. A very trusting couple is such a wonderful thing to share.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      3 years ago from Northern California

      Thank you Linda. I appreciate the praise. Please stay in touch.

    • Linda Robinson60 profile image

      Linda Robinson 

      3 years ago from Cicero, New York

      Good morning Kenna what a super hub. So much fun to read. It was packed fill with so much fascinating content. Hung on to the words from the beginning to end. Take care. Linda


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