• 1 of 2: Photography by Anne Sherwood Pundyk. Courtesy of the photographer.

  • 2 of 2: Detail of Dreamers by Susan Bee. See it reprinted in Gulf Coast 28.1.

On Dreamers and Ruby Dee

Susan Bee

When the actress, poet, playwright, and activist Ruby Dee died in June 2014, I noticed various images of her online and in the newspapers. I had always admired her long and passionate relationship with her husband Ossie Davis, who died in 2005. Together they pursued a stellar artistic life in films and theater and a politically active agenda in left wing causes and civil rights. As artists they maintained their ideals throughout their careers, while embracing their mutual love and raising a large family. Dee embodied the integrity that is too often missing in today’s ratings-mad entertainment world. 

I was inspired to document her early work, especially her starring role in the ground breaking black and white film, Raisin in the Sun (1961), based on the play by Lorraine Hansberry. The film and play starred an African American cast, and highlighted the difficult costs of racial prejudice on one family in a segregated Chicago neighborhood. I made two paintings from film stills of Dee and her co-star, Sidney Poitier, in tribute to her. I was also interested in addressing the Langston Hughes poem, which the title of the play and the film refers to: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” and going on to the ending of the poem: “Or does it explode?”

In the painting, Dreamers, I focus on a scene when Poitier and Dee are resting together in bed after a particularly arduous interaction. Their eyes are closed and they seem to be lost in their dreams. I viewed this sleep as a release from the stresses of their struggle to obtain a better life for their family. I wanted to give a sense of their love and intimacy and so enhanced the black and white still with multiple colorful vibrant patterns and abstract passages that form their bedding, clothes, and hair. Framing them from above are symbols of light and growth including a sun, stars, flowers, arrows, and a weeping eye. These shapes point to the hope embodied in their visionary dreams of a better life together.