American original: Ruby Dee played a part on many different stages

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Actor and civil rights activist Ruby Dee, who died last week, made the most of her 91 years on and off stage, screen and television. Best known for her creative partnership with late playwright-activist Ossie Davis, her husband of 56 years, she refused to compromise her conscience at a time when controversy could hamper an acting career.

While Hollywood still had African-American actors playing domestics, Ms. Dee starred opposite Sidney Poitier in the stage and film versions of “A Raisin in the Sun.” In 1965 she became the first black woman to perform multiple leads in the American Shakespeare Festival. Her roles in two Spike Lee movies and an Oscar-nominated performance in “American Gangster” introduced Ms. Dee to a younger generation of fans.

But she was just as respected for her work on civil rights. Ms. Dee was one of the emcees for Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and she and her husband held fundraisers for King after he was released from jail in 1963. The couple were also friends of Malcolm X. Ms. Dee condemned lynching, apartheid and the red-lining of neighborhoods.

There were far more famous actors in Hollywood than Ruby Dee, but few were braver or more conscientious. She was an American original.

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