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Sunday, November 3, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ruby Dee Has Her Say -- The Esteemed Actress Shares Her Views On Life, Love And Career

Seattle Times Theater Critic

----------------------------------------------------------------- Theater preview

"My One Good Nerve," written and starring Ruby Dee, previews Friday, Saturday and Nov. 11, and opens Nov. 12. It runs Tuesdays-Sundays through Dec. 15 at A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union St. Tickets are $15.50-$29; call 292-ARTS. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Ruby Dee celebrated a birthday last week. But the esteemed African-American actress implores you not to specify which one.

"Please don't talk about my age," the petite and gracious Dee tells you on a rainy afternoon in Seattle, where she is taking a dinner break between rehearsals for her new solo play, "My One Good Nerve."

"Just say I'm 69," Dee advises, as she offers you half of her turkey sandwich and sips a glass of very dry cabernet. "You know the way Jack Benny was always 39? Well, I'll just stay 69 forever."

Then she laughs. A throaty, sensuous laugh that sounds so familiar - and utterly ageless.

Whatever birthday she admits to, Dee has certainly packed an enormous amount of artistry, conviction and achievement into an acting career that spans half a century.

Her early film roles opposite the dynamic young Sidney Poitier broke barriers at a time when black actresses had few undemeaning opportunities in Hollywood.

Her powerful characterizations in such contemporary plays as "Purlie Victorious" and "Boesman and Lena," and classics as

Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," confirmed her range and depth as a stage performer.

Add to that Dee's glowing appearances in such TV miniseries as Alex Haley's "Roots: The Next Generation" and in Spike Lee films, her Emmy (for "Decoration Day") and Obie (for "Wedding Band") awards, and you understand why she is a beacon to the younger black actresses coming up today - those who aspire to careers as diverse and distinguished as Dee's has been.

Dee is also living proof that family life, artistic accomplishment and fervent social activism are not incompatible pursuits. She and her actor-writer husband, Ossie Davis, have three grown children and seven grandkids - which, she acknowledges, "hasn't always been easy."

They also braved the McCarthy-era blacklists, marched beside Martin Luther King Jr., knew Malcolm X well and have been longtime foes of social injustice.

In her own piquant terms, Dee calls herself a committed "creative agitator" and "people lover," who has "been in this expression business for as long as I can remember."

Moving into writing

For Ruby Dee, the "expression business" is not confined to acting. "I really want to be known now as a writer," she declares, her velvety brown eyes wide behind bright blue, square-framed glasses, her voice a little hesitant.

"I should have been a writer a long time ago, but I guess I didn't trust myself enough. And then I married a good writer, so I gave it up for a long time."

Over the years, however, Dee "snuck back into writing." She penned articles for Harlem's venerable Amsterdam News. She concocted musical comedies - including "Take It From the Top," an unproduced work "about the end of the world and other business."

Later, Dee dramatized favorite short stories for episodes of "Ossie and Ruby," the public-TV series she and Davis hosted in the 1970s. More recently, she adapted works by Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston into a play and a PBS Masterpiece Theatre presentation, "Zora is My Name!" Several children's books, including "Two Ways to Count to Ten," also bear Dee's name.

But the literary effort closest to her sensibility is a slim volume of droll "rhythms, rhymes and reasons," titled "My One Good Nerve."

Published in 1987 by Chicago's Third World Press, the book collects Dee's whimsical verses, her "salutes" to people she has loved and admired (actress Diana Sands, singer Marvin Gaye, Lena Horne), her short stories and her sly revisionist nursery rhymes patterned on Mother Goose. A one-woman journey

Now, with support from her family, and A Contemporary Theatre artistic head Peggy Shannon, Dee is crafting a one-woman theater assemblage. Roughly half the material in "My One Good Nerve," which begins previews at ACT's Gregory Falls Theatre next week in Shannon's staging, comes from her 1987 book. The rest is more recent - "including some things I'm working on right now," explains Dee.

Is the show a stage memoir of her eventful life in and out of show business?

"No, no, no, no, no," she responds, shaking her head. "My husband and I are going to write a joint autobiography soon, and deal with it that way.

"But the play is all my stuff. It's about how life, and the times, and the people I've met, have impacted on my thinking and behavior. And how it all filters through this not-quite-straight psyche of mine."

According to Shannon, who met Dee through a mutual friend, "My One Good Nerve is a pastiche of multiple characters and many moods.

"The tone of the piece is uniquely Ruby's. She is an amazing, amazing woman, and an actress who is in touch with her deepest feelings. But as a first-time playwright, she's just learning to have confidence in herself."

Dee expects much of "My One Good Nerve" (which she hopes to tour nationally) will be funny - in a sweet-and-sour way.

"One reason I didn't trust my writing for so long was that I always considered myself a serious dramatic actor. But people would always laugh when I shared my writing with them. It took my husband to help me see that I really am part humorist. You may think it's hard to find humor in things like homelessness and overpopulation and racism. But I manage to do it."

Roots in Harlem

An ability to chuckle at the human comedy has been a boon to the woman born Ruby Ann Wallace. Raised in a large Harlem family, young Ruby basked in the encouragement of her railway-worker father and teacher stepmother. Yet like other black Americans of the time, she also faced gross social inequity.

"When I was young I dreamt of being a starlet in Hollywood," Dee recalls. "But there comes a point in every African American's life when you realize the limitations, that you could only play maids or some little supporting role. Even Lena Horne couldn't get good parts.

"Racism is a very insidious thing," Dee continues. "It's dangerous to the psyche, to mind and body. It erodes the self-confidence. And I don't know how we get through it. You don't take a course in how to be black in America, so how do you hold onto your one good nerve in spite of the contradictions and the dichotomies, the distance between the promise and the fulfillment?"

For Dee, it helped to come of age in the culturally and politically vibrant scene that was 1940s Harlem. There, she apprenticed with the American Negro Theatre, while earning a degree at Hunter College. Affectionately known as ANT, the pioneering company, led by Frederick O'Neal and Abram Hill, nurtured the talents of a wave of exciting black actors, including Dee, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.

"ANT was down in the basement of a Harlem library back then," Dee says. "It's so easy to romanticize now, but through that group I saw a different way to be an actor and a different idea of what was possible, given the context of racism."

Dee appeared in ANT's smash Broadway production of "Anna Lucasta." Soon after, she met Davis during rehearsals of "Jeb," another Broadway play with a "Negro theme." It was not love at first sight: "I saw Ossie's picture in the paper as the one who got the role. I thought, `The producers probably went down South and picked this guy out from behind a plow.' The truth is, he was an intellectual! And a very ambitious writer, actor and director."

Her feelings about the tall, deep-voiced Davis warmed considerably once they became better acquainted. In 1948, they married.

"We both had a strong sense of who we were and where we belonged," Dee explains, "and we both became involved in the political struggles of the time."

That meant participating in many protests. Whether the cause was agitating white-owned banks to grant blacks business loans in Harlem, or decrying lynchings in the South, or objecting to the war in Vietnam, the couple often stood on the frontlines.

"I do come from extraordinary times," Dee says. "We met Martin (Luther King Jr.) many times at fund-raisers at Harry Belafonte's house. He'd be laughing and talking, eating chicken. Martin loved a good party, and he had a devilish streak of humor, you know."

Malcolm X was a closer personal friend: "My brother was his neighbor, and we got to know him well. I'm amazed even now that on the day Malcolm was killed, newspapers across the board seemed to finally make sense of the man. It was almost as if now that he was gone, they could express their understanding of where he was coming from."

It was Davis who eulogized Malcolm X as "our shining black prince" at the activist's funeral. To Dee, "Malcolm was a credit to the world. How needed is this kind of creative agitator, who makes us think and argue and talk and debate and not take things for granted or be too frightened to talk about the issues."

Another influential encounter was with Lorraine Hansberry, whose "A Raisin in the Sun" was a watershed Broadway drama of life in black America.

"I was a little in awe of Lorraine, because she was so bright and it took me a long time to respect my own intellect," Dee says. "But I used to love sitting and listening to her talk and debate at occasions, holding her own with James Baldwin and King and Malcolm. It's hard to believe she died so young, in her 30s."

As Dee and Davis stayed active politically, they reared two daughters (both educators) and a son (a blues musician), and maintained busy careers. A high point for Dee was acting opposite her husband in his satirical Broadway comedy, "Purlie Victorious." And there were all those movies with Sidney Poitier.

"I think my name was Ruth three or four times in films with Sidney," she laughs. "Sidney has been very meaningful in my life, sort of like a younger brother. We don't see each other much now, but the connection is always there."

Attuned to the present

Though ready to talk about the past, Dee appears to be very rooted in the present.

She responds thoughtfully and candidly to black playwright August Wilson's recent criticism of the "blind casting" of African Americans in classic dramas by white Europeans.

"As an actor you come with the capacities to be anything," Dee says. "I don't think we have to be exclusive in our allegiances, because that enforces another kind of tyranny.

"You know, as we grow up in the world, one thing about being American that's striking is our exposure to the different cultural rhythms and sounds and smells and sights that make these United States so fabulously interesting. I love that Wilson appreciates the kind of African American he's draws so well in his plays. But they're not the only, or the real ones. In fact, there are no more diverse people on Earth than us African Americans!"

Featured in "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever," Dee is a big fan of the important black film director Spike Lee.

"I love Spike because he had a dream, and he wasn't paying attention to why he couldn't do what he wanted. He just did it, just said, `I'm gonna cut this pie and have me a piece.' "

She also offers praise to Alfre Woodard, Angela Bassett and other younger black actresses, and passionately wants "things to be different for them, better than they were for my generation.

"I want them to get together and have the energy and determination to fight for their projects. I want to see a consistency of product from these women, not just something big every five or 10 years. Just step up to the plate and do it!"

Dee holds some burning concerns about today's world, too.

"All this new technology is marvelous, but we are not here to serve it," she states firmly. "It must serve the human spirit, or that spirit will shrivel and die."

She also worries about the deepening divisions across our society: "I pray with my whole soul that the divide-and-conquerers among us will not triumph over us. We need each other in this world so desperately."

Still an optimist

But Dee is essentially an optimist, who likes to quote one of Hansberry's sayings: "Why do you despairing ones think only you know the truth?." She has faith in the resiliency of the human spirit, and in her own plans and dreams - for roles she still wants to play, and scripts she longs to write.

When asked how she stays young at heart and in mind, and busy with multiple projects at an age when most people slow down, Dee muses, "If it's anything I'm thanking God for it's that every day I have something to do that challenges me, that demands I keep moving.

I think that's how you get through it.

"I just hope I have the time to finish some of the things I'm just now getting the confidence to try." ----------------------------------------------------------------- `Double Dutch'.

Oh-oh girl - . You broke your stride . Did that put . A dent in your pride? . That's alright my little friend . Don't get mad. Don't jump bad. Reassess your situation. Make another evaluation. Then. Take a deep breath. Say a little prayer. And jump right on back in there. By Ruby Dee, from "My One Good Nerve." Reprinted with permission.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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