Do you have a Ruby Dee story? Ruby’s Delta sorority sisters shared their love at her 90th birthday party: “It was such an honor to witness and be a part of such a befitting artistic display of Ruby Dee’s life and career, as captured on the big screen and documented by her grandson, Mr. Muta’ Ali,” said Cynthia Butler-McIntyre, National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. There is no doubt that Ruby Dee’s countless television, Broadway stage, and film roles are entwined with over half a century of the entertainment industry’s history,” said Butler-McIntyre. “But, what has kept Ruby Dee near and dear to our hearts and why we (Delta Sigma Theta) saw it necessary for Soror Ruby Dee to grace us with her elegance, wisdom, tenacity, and audacity as a member, is the mere fact that she and Mr. Ossie Davis believed that ‘any form of art is a form of power.’ ”
Actor Rosie O’Donnell said that she worked with Ruby on a film about foster care recently. “Working with Ruby was tremendous!” Folk singer Pete Seeger said that he could not remember all the things that he did with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee over the past 70 years but that it was “fun and about art and activism.”
Personally, I remember when Ruby Dee came to my high school, George W. Wingate in Brooklyn, in 1970 to talk to Black students who had been accepted to college. Ruby was brought there by a forceful Black guidance counselor named Mrs. Mc Caddy, who had organized the gathering. She said that her famous movie star friend Ruby Dee was coming to give us a pep talk. We were so excited. Ruby spoke about her college days and reminded us about the Civil Rights movement. She said that her husband Ossie and many in her generation fought for us to have access to education. She reminded us that it was our obligation to reach back to mentor those coming behind us.
A Harlem dance school owner shared a story. She said that Ruby registered her own daughters in the school to help drum up business for the fledgling dance school. “Ruby was so supportive to me and I was a complete stranger to her. Ruby and Ossie were like that. If they heard that you were doing something positive, they were there for you. We used to be a ‘real community’ back then.’ Everyone in Harlem signed up just because Ruby’s kids were my students!” the Harlem resident said, who didn’t want to give her name.
The point about being a complete ‘stranger’ is important and why Ruby and Ossie are so beloved. To Ossie and Ruby, there were no strangers, they were always approachable. They are probably the last of their kind, with a few exceptions. Ossie and Ruby would indeed show up for your gathering or any community event. We could always count on them to narrate a documentary or MC a benefit for free if they felt that it was a good cause. Today’s ‘stars’ are not as approachable. Happily, the stars were aligned and many said said yes! when asked to come out for Ruby’s birthday!
Dressed in hot pink, Ruby Dee celebrated her 90th birthday in grand style. It was a film tribute to her life at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on November 14, 2012. Ironically, it was in the Schomburg’s basement theater where it all began. Ruby met husband-to-be Ossie Davis and co-stars Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier there and the rest, as they say, was history.
Now, nearly 70 years later, family and contemporaries like Pete Seeger, 93; Harry Belafonte, 85; and David Dinkins, 85, flanked the grande dame of stage, screen and picket lines. She was feted with film clips from a documentary-in-the-works entitled Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee, directed by one of her seven grandchildren, Muta’Ali Muhammad.
Testimonials also came from the First Couple, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michele Obama in the form of a proclamation. Video greetings from Alan Alda, Glynn Turnman, Jeffrey Wright and others highlighted the evening.
For a certain generation though, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were America’s first favorite couple. Their lives seamlessly intersected politics, the arts, media and activism. The auspicious occasion was hosted by two other famous couples— actors Angela Bassett with husband Courtney Vance and Susan L. Taylor (Essence Magazine) and author-husband Khephra Burns, who performed an original poem together.
Some of the other luminaries in attendance were Jesse Jackson, Rosie O’Donnell, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Melvin Van Peebles, Rev. James A. Forbes, Micki Grant, Malik Yoba, Woodie King, Barbara Montgomery, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, among others. The party music featured Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amor and Happy Birthday with delicious food catered by Norma Darden’s Spoonbread.
Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee reached lovingly deep into the family’s archives. One scene took place inside their huge storage barn packed to the rafters with awards, plaques, playbills, poster, costumes, and stage props. Witnessing that scene along with rare film footage portrayed a glimpse of lives well lived. But most of all, we were all grateful for the memories, especially to see the late Ossie Davis, again, who died in 2005.
Funny and sad reflections from the children and grandchildren gave the viewer a hint of what it was like to live inside this amazing family. Working with producer Jevon NJ Frank, it took Muta’Ali 300 people over 40 days to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter to pay for the 30-minute excerpt. The final film is expected in 2013.
After a champagne toast, Ruby Dee said: “I am totally surprised and overwhelmed. It would be too easy for me to cry. Let’s remember that we are all miracles. Time to get busy!”
The screening was made possible by sponsors Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, Camille and Bill Cosby, Carol Sutton Lewis and William M. Lewis, Jr. Charitable Foundation, AARP, Billye and Hank Aaron, and 1199 SEIU.