Ruby Dee has someplace to go. She’s being gracious on the phone, assuring me in that famously husky voice that even though she’s scheduled to pick up a dress before an event tonight involving the Apollo Theater — she’s talking to me from her office in New York — she has time to talk. Not just to me, either, but to several other reporters penciled in on her calendar who are clamoring for a bit of her time, now that the unofficial mourning period for her late husband, legendary actor/activist Ossie Davis (from whom she seemed inseparable), seems to be over. Contrary to what some people had expected, Dee has increased her workload since Davis’ death in February, even at her age (she won’t give a number, but suffice it to say that Ossie was 87). Part of it is a new push to preserve her husband’s legacy, the other part is simply that Dee’s plate has always been full. She’s completed two films this year — including the independent movie she was shooting in New Zealand when Davis was struck down by a heart attack — and will likely revive her solo theater piece from 1998, My One Good Nerve, in the near future. Dee also has offers from television to film it. And then there’s Emmalyn, the production company she co-founded with Davis, that’s mounted historical specials for television on figures such as Martin Luther King and is focusing now on developing literary works by authors of color, one of the couple’s lifelong passions.
“I’m really busier now than I’ve ever been, working harder than I ever have,” says Dee without a hint of fatigue. “Ossie and I always had a fairly busy life, but there’s a little more urgency now than before. It keeps me thinking that he’s not gone. I’m not feeling overwhelmed. If there’s any reason I’m still here, it’s to get all this work out.”
One new aspect of the work is rounding up all of Davis’ material — essays, speeches, the famous eulogy he delivered at Malcolm X’s funeral in 1965 — for re-publication. Davis’ death this year coincides with the 35th anniversary of Purlie, the acclaimed musical based on the actor’s groundbreaking play about racial segregation, Purlie Victorious. In commemoration of Purlie, Dee will be the featured guest at the Pasadena Playhouse on Saturday as part of its “Conversation With...” series. Talking directly with the public suits Dee, who was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and, like her husband, never divorced art from politics. Dee says she’s also determined to continue living that legacy aloud by taking up causes close to Davis’ heart, such as opposing capital punishment. Somehow, she’ll make time for it all.
“We have a job to do in these 10 or 15 extra years we’re given,” she says of folks her age — however old that is. “Before we get into the wheelchairs and the canes, we have a chance to make more hay.”
Pasadena Playhouse’s “Conversations With...” lecture series features Ruby Dee, Saturday, July 2, 2 p.m., at 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 356-PLAY.