Ruby Dee and Billie Allen challenging stereotypes at age 76 with politically edgy play

Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- Ruby Dee and Billie Allen have earned the right to take risks.

After careers that have spanned nearly six decades, the two 76-year-old theater veterans have the freedom to take artistic and political chances. And they are bringing their defiant energy to ''Saint Lucy's Eyes,'' a four-act play about a grandmother who performs abortions in Memphis, Tenn. It is a story with a razor-sharp political edge, perfectly suited to firebrands Dee and Allen who are challenging the stereotype that over 70 means it's time to retire.

''I'm trying to work up to the glory of getting to be in your 70s,'' Dee said. ''There is a place for people 65 and older that no other age group can fit. We have nothing to lose. Some of us have a couple pennies. We can go out now and really be revolutionaries.''

Dee has always been associated with strong characters, whether on stage, screen or in her own life. She has supported countless civil rights and humanitarian causes and participated in Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington.

Dee was the voice of wisdom and reason as Mother Sister in Spike Lee's 1989 film ''Do the Right Thing'' and played Grandmother Baxter in the 1979 television movie ''I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.''

As Grandma, she is the woman who performs $50 abortions for young women who come to her desperate for help. The play begins on the eve of King's assassination and follows Grandma through years of personal struggle, set against the social ferment of the civil rights movement.

''I'm directing this play because of its political weight,'' said Allen, whose activism runs deep. As a child, she remembers picketing the neighborhood supermarket because it refused to hire black workers. She has participated in voter registration drives since she was a girl and has raised money for the Jackie Robinson Foundation for decades.

''The saying goes, if you want to date any of Ms. Allen's daughters, first you have to picket something,'' Allen said.

As an actress and director, Allen has worked on dozens of productions with a strong activist bent, from ''Boseman and Lena,'' the story of migrant workers in South Africa, to a musical version of Langston Hughes' ''Little Ham'' that she adapted with her husband, composer and Broadway orchestrator Luther Henderson.

Allen said that when she first read the ''Saint Lucy'' script she knew she wanted to direct it. And she knew just who would play Grandma.

''I couldn't get her out of my mind,'' Allen said. ''I heard Ruby's voice, and her humor, and her sensuality -- and also her passion to help young women in her life, and her passion for equality and justice.''

Although this is the first production in which they have worked as director and actress, the two women have known each other since the early 1940s. They briefly appeared together as actors in ''A Raisin in the Sun.'' Dee had earlier gained recognition in the landmark 1959 Broadway production which showcased an extended black family and the universal problems of a mother trying to raise her children against the odds. Dee played the daughter-in-law Ruth, who at one point secretly goes to a midwife who performs abortions.

''We've been kind of linked together through the struggle,'' Allen said.

As their careers have matured, they have been increasingly recognized for their significant contributions to performance art. Allen sits on the Advisory Board for the Women's Theater Project and Productions, an organization dedicated to promoting female playwrights.

Dee and her husband of 53 years, the actor Ossie Davis, together won a National Medal of the Arts in 1995 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2000. She chronicles her marriage in a book she and her husband wrote, ''With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together,'' published by William Morrow.

''Success now means that you can make the difference in your children's lives and the lives of the young,'' Dee said. ''We have come through something, and we have something to share.''

Dee and Allen have sought to be mentors to young women like first-time playwright Bridgette Wimberly, who penned ''Saint Lucy's Eyes,'' which opened July 12 and runs through Sept. 2 at the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan. The play's name refers to a statue of a Catholic saint whose eyes are at first judgmental, then forgiving and hopeful.

Despite being grandmothers themselves, Dee and Allen are not taking any final bows yet. Allen is writing a ballet, a fantasy set on the Louisiana bayou. She said that before a recent dress rehearsal, she and Dee talked about how rewarding it is to continue to work.

''I said, 'Ruby, I know this is a hard time, and we're tired, but it's better than sitting on the beach trying to decide where to go to dinner, isn't it?''' Allen said. ''And listening to inane conversation not about much.''

Dee, who calls herself a ''busy old lady,'' performs her one-woman stage show, ''My One Good Nerve: A Visit With Ruby Dee,'' in theaters across the country. The show is a cohesive compilation of some of the short stories, humor and poetry in her book of the same title.

''I think you mustn't tell your body, you mustn't tell your soul, 'I'm going to retire,''' Dee said. ''You may be changing your life emphasis, but there's still things that you have in mind to do that now seems the right time to do. I really don't believe in retiring as long as you can breathe.''

End advance for Thursday, July 26, and thereafter

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