You might say that the resplendent actor and activist Ruby Dee, who died on Thursday at the age of 91, was presciently typecast when she played the Defending Angel in the 1953 play The World of Sholom Aleichem. Over some seven decades of championing civil rights and humanitarian causes, and of lighting up stage and screen (she amassed a small forest of acting awards along with Kennedy Center Honors and a National Medal of the Arts), she seemed like a divine messenger, combining grace and grandeur—that sultry voice, that stunning solidity—and demonstrating that there is no contradiction between devoting one’s life to high artistry and radical action.
Yet the role in The World of Sholom Aleichem was also an unlikely one, not least because the production itself was so improbable. Created by writer Arnold Perl and director Howard da Silva as they sought to put themselves and other blacklisted artists back to work, the play was a surprise hit, an early off-Broadway production that ran at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel, and the first popular stage work in English drawn from the Yiddish canon. Perl adapted three pieces—a Chelm tale and stories by I. L. Peretz and Sholem-Aleichem—and knit them together with narration by Mendele the Bookseller. Right before rehearsals were to begin, Da Silva met Dee and her husband, Ossie Davis, at a rally against the execution of the Rosenbergs and offered Dee an acting role and Davis the job of stage manager; they joined a company that included Morris Carnovsky, Sarah Cunningham, and Jack Gilford.
The work for which Dee shot to national fame—her light-footed yet devastating portrayal of Ruth Younger, Walter’s stalwart wife in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, first on Broadway (1959), then for the film (1961)—was still half-a-dozen years away when they joined The World of Sholom Aleichem, but Dee was already a star of “Negro” movies like The Jackie Robinson Story and productions like Jeb, a short-lived Broadway play about a returning World War II veteran, in which she met Ossie Davis in 1946. They married two years later, forging a 60-year partnership built of shared passions—personal, political, and creative. But The World of Sholom Aleichem was their first project that was not primarily about African Americans. I had the privilege of speaking to her in 2010 about that project and Dee told me it opened a number of new vistas for them. It was “one of the most exciting times of our lives,” she said, “a joyous time.” The poster from the production (designed by Ben Shahn) hung in her New Rochelle home for more than half a century.
Davis and Dee credited the Yiddish humor they were exposed to in the play with giving Davis a satirical angle for his 1961 play Purlie Victorious, turning it from a planned tragedy into what Dee described as “a farce about racism.” And Dee found in working on World a new approach to acting. “These were Method folk,” she told me, referring to the Stanislavskian technique of the actors who had worked with the Group Theatre in New York and the Actors Lab in Los Angeles. “In a sense, we were really going to school under those people.” Her acting, until that point, had come by what she described as a kind of listening, an openness to character that she simply allowed to come through her. (And indeed, she became Ruth Younger, or Fugard’s Lena or Spike Lee’s Mother Sister from the core of her being to the very surface of her skin.) But Da Silva taught her that you “have to know how you get there” and be able to repeat it. Meanwhile, the rest of the company of mostly Jewish leftists learned plenty from the pioneering couple in their exchanges about art and commitment.
As the Defending Angel, Davis appeared in “Bontche Schweig” (“Bontche the Silent”) the middle act in The World of Sholom Aleichem—the piece based on Peretz. Set in heaven, where Bontche has just arrived after a wretched life of hunger, poverty, and lovelessness without complaint, he is invited to request any reward whatsoever, and asks merely for a roll with butter. Peretz wrote it as a critique of passivity, but in the play, it was often received as a paean to humility. “When they splashed mud on him; when they spit on him; when they made him walk in the gutter and told him to keep off the sidewalk … he kept silent although starvation and death were constantly by his side,” the Defending Angel argued on his behalf. Dee knew a thing or two about such splashes and spittings. And, thankfully, she did not keep silent.
Unlike their castmates, Davis and Dee were not officially blacklisted—“When it comes to Black people being blacklisted it’s like saying a rock is hard,” she said, quoting her late husband. “When you’re Black in this situation we call America, a little bit of red doesn’t show.” Still, authorities with subpoenas came looking for them while they were upstate with a touring performance of The World of Sholom Aleichem. They hid backstage under a heap of clothes in some big wicker baskets and were never served.
Dee recalled that her objective as the Defending Angel was to convince heaven to embrace Bontche. Though she couldn’t remember any of her lines when we spoke in 2010, she recalled some text from the third-act playlet, based on a Sholem Aleichem story decrying anti-Jewish quotas in Russian schools: “Education should be free.” She didn’t have a role in that part of the play. Nonetheless, she said, “that line stuck with me.”
Alisa Solomon, the director of the Arts & Cuture MA program at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, which was featured in a Vox Tablet podcast.