Ruby Dee: Coiled And Bright And Brilliant

 September 1982
 New Orleans

   There is something about acting that [Elia] Kazan was always discussing when we worked together, and I feigned an understanding of what he was saying: He talked about terminal acting: well, really, about terminal art: acting, writing, directing. I believed that he was referring to gravity or a seriousness of purpose, but I came to see that it was actually a means of expression that had plumbed every possible resource—emotional, physical, intellectual—to bring a character, a situation, an entire play to the understanding of both the actor and the audience. I keep reminding you of the futility of sitting before a page until you have some tremendous stake in the work, until you have something mighty at stake, until you have some recognizable people in tremendous peril. Something, for God’s sake, has to be at stake. I’ve told you of some actresses who are pregnant with peril—a term that I learned either from reading Virginia Woolf or from sitting up at night with Tyrone Guthrie.

Ruby Dee is frighteningly pregnant with peril, and everything she owns and shares—her physical and emotional being, her emotional and psychic inventories—are fully on display in her work, no matter the play, the film, the television work. I do not know Ruby Dee, and I have no idea of her life or the situations that she has subsumed and transformed into material for art, but there are stories there, there are lessons, and she shares them with us—she has shared them with me—each time she steps forward and acts.

    There is a myth about revelation in art. Everyone came out of classes with Lee [Strasberg] and thought that what they were sharing was themselves. I don’t care to know that much about too many actresses, but I am endlessly interested in seeing how they take the materials they have been given by fate and reaction and neglect and attention and how they use all of this to transform a role into something entirely unique. I might care to believe that Ruby Dee is angry, or is she? Has she merely trained her frighteningly acute vision on the plight of others in the world and used the anger she felt on seeing their condition and used it in work? We may never know, nor do we need to. I just want the work. I see anger—healthy and robust and suffused with humor. I see intelligence as bright when turning away from what is evident as when facing the tragic head-on and fearless. I do not feel she is afraid of anything a role may require of her.

   I would love to see her as Amanda, a role I have always believed revealed a great deal of the actress who tackles her. It is a vast role, and one that should be played by every brave and brilliant actress of every nationality and race: Amanda is a universal woman, and I do not think anything within her is alien to a sensitive woman, a talented and fearless actress. There is really no role in which Ruby would not excel, and there is no role in which I would not wish to see her. Her work with Fugard is frighteningly intense; thrilling in the way tightrope walkers or fighter pilots are thrilling when they risk everything to reach their goal. I think she was capable of scaring people away from the theatre with that performance, by which I mean those who show up to be entertained, removed from reality: her work in that play shoved your face into the reality of life, the reality of survival, and it was shattering, but it was not easy. It was not for the faint-hearted.

   Well, I am not faint of heart, and neither is she. Something is bound to happen, and both of us will be ready, I hope, for what might emerge. I’m here, faking the fog, and hoping, and she is wherever she is, coiled and bright and brilliant and she has her eyes and her heart wide open. Persistently pregnant with peril.


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