In the Key of Dee

Photo by Brett PanelliONE DOES NOT EXACTLY INTERVIEW RUBY DEE. DIMINUTIVE and warmly intense, the veteran actress does not talk to you so much as let you in on what she's thinking, make you privy to a nonstop ticker tape of notions running through her head once you ask a question or two. Like a favorite aunt who always has something interesting to say, she shoots from the middle in a low, honeyed husk of a voice that is awfully tempting to characterize as jazz singer, but is frankly more Lenny Bruce -- the explication of words and ideas, not the vagaries of love and lost men, is what runs down her clock to its last tick. Or more appropriately at this point, what files her down to her last good nerve: My One Good Nerve: A Visit with Ruby Dee, a one-woman opus based on her recently published book of humor, short stories and poetry, runs at the Canon Theater through July 4th. "I'm always jealous of musicians, you know. They can do so much on stage," she says, shaking her head in mock distress, her pendulous ivory earrings dancing. "I was sort of anxious about this show because it's such a wordfest, and I've been told that L.A. is not a theater town. But the response has been good, very good."

Famous for being turned out, Dee is dressed today in black and gold, and her reddish hair is bundled on top of her head and held in place by something like a tiara. She sits in the mauve-colored lobby of the Beverly Hills Marriott, an appallingly generic place I hardly considered ideal for an interview; Dee, however, has a knack for lending intimacy to wherever she happens to be, whether it's a stage or a lobby corner filled with modular furniture and some discreet Muzak. She leans over the arm of a plump chair to get in closer, rests her chin in one hand. When struck with a particularly salient idea ("My God, my hair is so thin, there's so little of it -- what do you do to yours?"), her luminous eyes seem to spring apart; she breathily prefaces remarks with "Ah ah ah!" as if trying to hastily gather any wayward thoughts at the last moment and put them in optimal order before turning them loose. What comes out is often intriguing, layered with poetic meaning if a bit abstruse. "We are all a tiger with feelings," she says, musing on the pronounced emotional musculature of her show. "An elephant who never forgets. We are tiger, panther, monkey -- we are all of these things, all of the life rhythms. Marvelous!"

AT THE AGE OF 70-PLUS, DEE IS OFFERING UP NOTHING LESS than artistic revolution with Nerve. For starters, the show refuses to follow the prescriptive black story of collective struggle -- the up-from-slavery narrative, the mournful song of the South that has been transposed through the ages and has taken on different pitches and locales (South-Central, anyone?), yet the song remains the same. Dee's song is primarily one of self; even when addressing daunting social issues, she never loses her slyness or comic bite, never lets that wonderfully unfinished voice get subsumed by big themes. Struggle is generally the operative word for Dee, but she colors it from the inside out, not the other way around -- a radical world-view for a black artist; particularly radical for an artist many consider to be an elder stateswoman in the twilight of her career. People might have expected Dee's show to be chiefly reflective of a life well-lived -- homilies and cozy epilogues delivered from an easy chair -- but Dee instead paces the stage for two hours, pondering everything from sex to abortion rights to the untimely death of rapper Tupac Shakur (she does a mean and oddly moving impression of his mother, Afeni). In a word, she is present, all forward motion, full of the where-do-we-go-from-here existential postulating that gives rise to plenty of stories but steers clear of heavy conclusions. Dee wants you to go away from her show hungry, in a good way. "It all ties in -- sex, struggle, relationships, arguments, spirituality, murder -- it's all an intricate stew," she says cheerfully. "Everything is interconnected. My questions now are, What do we live? How do we live? What am I living longer for? I'm now beginning to see the why of it all. What I've decided is that nothing will make any sense until we infuse it with spirit." This is not spirit in the strictly religious sense: What's missing most from modern life, Dee believes, is human purpose and passion, an organic kind of faith that is quite a thing apart from the redemptive qualities we increasingly, perhaps subconsciously, tend to ascribe to things or money. Money will get us out of one sort of impoverishment but has left us entrenched in another.

"There's a lack of moral and spiritual imperative -- it's hard to make people believe that money isn't the all of it," says Dee. "It's hard for people to be really committed to something. Like marriage -- it's bigger than the two people involved, bigger than money. But of course, our economic system is so irresponsible now. The economics of life is against the family. It's not the same as it used to be, and we blame parents and teachers while we privatize prisons." (Heads up: This is the stuff of her next book.) "We can't find our peace until certain things change."

Dee doesn't think that black struggle is terribly relevant anymore ("It's a species struggle" now), yet the civil rights fights of the '60s that made her and husband, Ossie, as synonymous with struggle as they were with literate black film and theater have not entirely disappeared in spirit. Dee admits being still in service to dreams; her favorite moment in the show is "Dream Droppers," a mini-paean to people with their heads firmly in the clouds. "America still needs its revolutionaries, its creative agitators," she muses, implicating herself in that number. "It's getting increasingly difficult to be a dreamer under any circumstances. It's hard for the idealists these days. They're in the computer before they get a chance to fully articulate their ideas."

About 45 minutes into our talk, Dee's handler appears and gently suggests that she end the interview: It is time for a nap. The actress performs My One Good Nerve almost daily, sometimes twice a day -- "Not bad for an old lady, eh?" she says with a chuckle and a light elbow to my ribs, momentarily amused by her own septuagenarian state. She's not entirely happy about leaving the friendly confines of the Marriott lobby, not yet. Her parting thoughts are instead open-ended, not a period or flourish in sight. "Black filmmakers -- I'm grateful for them," she says. "Thank God for Spike!" Whatever I think of Spike, I've always given him credit for employing Ruby and Ossie in his films, for letting them air a unique mix of folksiness and coruscating intelligence that would be woefully out of place in the plodding stuff that black movies have become -- Set It Off, Soul Food. Dee concedes as much: She's a dreamer, not a fool. "Despite the gains, it is still, as Ossie says, very much a Hollywood plantation," she sighs. Time for bed.


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