Stars, Fans and Family Gather at Riverside Church to Memorialize Actress, Activist Ruby Dee

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Ruby DeeJeffrey Wright, Carmen De LaVallade and Judith Jamison were guests among the scores of fans, friends and family members who gathered at The Riverside Church in NYC on the bright Saturday morning of September 20 to celebrate and reflect on the illustrious life and career of actress and activist Ruby Dee. Dee, who was married to actor and activist Ossie Davis until his death in 2005, passed away on June 11, 2014. She was 91.

Mournful at times, and joyous at other times, it was a star-studded affair as theater, film and music royalty paid tribute to Dee through song, dance, poetry, stories and readings.

An early program highlight was poet Sonia Sanchez?s spirited recitation of a poem in which she referred to Dee?s remarkable work as, ?God-conscious activism.?

?She helped set the identity of African American women on stage. She sat down with them. She broke down a deep song from Africa, Caribbean and Americas. This woman asked, ?Oh Lord, can these bones live?’ And they did, through activism and words,?
Sanchez said.

The service continued with Grammy-award winning singer and songwriter Alicia Keys who performed a moving version of her 2008 hit, ?Superwoman?; actor Glynn Turman who shared an amusing recollection of his time spent with Dee during their star turns in A Raisin in the Sun; former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers Sarita Allen, Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish, Donna Wood Sanders and Renee Robinson who performed a soul stirring, dance tribute, choreographed by Aubrey Lynch II, to the poem, ?I Am Somebody?; and a literary tribute by Dee?s actor friends Kim Fields, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lynn Whitfield, Phylicia Rashad, Elizabeth Van Dyke and Pauletta Washington who performed a medley of Dee?s original poetry and prose. (Susan Taylor stood in for Angela Bassett who was unable to attend due to work. Singer and six-time Emmy award-winning actress Audra McDonald was also unable to attend due to work obligations.)

Another musical performance was that of renowned jazz trumpter, music educator and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Wynton Marsalis who performed a particularly spellbinding, three-minute composition that evoked the spirit of courage and determination – attributes that, according to many of the speakers at the service, Dee was known for.

Former NYC mayor David N. Dinkins was on hand to read a letter from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

?Ruby?s bold vision for a fairer society was evident in every aspect of her life whether on stage or not. The gifts she shared will forever be dear to us,? Dinkins read from a portion of the Obamas? letter.

As mentioned in the printed program distributed at the service, born in 1922, Dee was ?a proud product of the NYC public school system, attending both P.S. 119 and P.S. 136 before earning a spot at Hunter College High School. From there, she went on to Hunter College, Class of 1944. A true believer in the necessity and the power of education, she remained devoted to her alma mater and to public education?Ruby and Ossie could be found at the center of the struggle for freedom, justice and equality at home and around the world. Ruby often spoke of America as a grand experiment, a ?baby nation? filled with great promise ? and she expected that promise to apply to all citizens. She never hesitated to quote from the Bill of Rights or the Constitution and believed that elders had a responsibility to use their so-called retirement years to get back out in the streets?She was a force of nature whose generous, indomitable spirit, and tireless pursuit of humanity?s highest possibilities will long be remembered.?????

There were also touching tributes made by Dee?s children and grandchildren and in one poignant moment, daughter Dr. Hasna Muhammad remarked, ?It?s a blessing in disguise that Audra [McDonald] and Angela [Bassett] can?t be here today. They?re working?on a road that my mother helped pave.????

Later in the program, Turman read a letter from actor Sidney Poitier, who could not attend, but wrote, ?Her expertise as an actor challenged me. They [Ossie and Ruby] never once let us down,? which was followed by an appearance from Harry Belafonte who gave the eulogy via a video-conference screen.

?What to say about ?our Ruby??? Belafonte said. ?She had such an important role to play – Ossie, too. I discovered the beauty, the charm and the genius of Ruby. Her gift, her art was quite astounding and rewarding. Together she and Ossie were the voice of humanity. We could turn to them for honor and wisdom at any number of plays and readings at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. Their constant presence and ability to give counsel to young artists has left a space.?

* Four additional programs have been arranged to pay homage to the iconic star at the following venues:

????????? Monday, September 29, 2014 ? 7pm
The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College?695 Park Avenue, Manhattan
Free Admission
Life?s Essentials With Ruby Dee
In this open-letter style documentary, Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis? rich lives guide their grandson, Muta? Ali Muhammad on his personal quest to master lasting love, conscious art and undying activism. The features Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover.

????????? Saturday, October 4, 2014?? 6:30-8:30pm

The New Rochelle Public Library?1 Library Plaza, New Rochelle, NY
Free Admission
Naming No. 2
In 2005, at the age of 80, Ruby Dee traveled to New Zealand to film, ?No. 2?
Although never released in U.S. theatres, the film won the 2006 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award

????????? Sunday, October 5, 2014 ? 1:30-5pm

The New Rochelle Public Library?1 Library Plaza, New Rochelle, NY
Free Admission
With Ossie and Ruby and Hands Upon the Heart
Clips from the PBS series and Dee and Davis co-hosted and co-produced. Hands Upon the Heart presents highlights from the series, including vignettes written by some of America?s greatest authors.