Remembering Ruby Dee in Anna Lucasta

It was so very long ago, but I have never forgotten the surprise, the thrill, the unexpected extraordinary excitement of seeing Ruby Dee in the title role of Anna Lucasta. It was 1946. Dee was young, and so was I. The unknown actress, and the daring new comedy/ drama in which she starred, had jolted New York audiences and critics to attention. The production arrived in L.A. from Broadway accompanied by glowing notices. Being an eager young student of theatre, completely enamored of its total mystique, I had scraped together the wherewithal (didn't take so much in those days) to go to see it in one of Downtown L.A.'s legitimate theatres. I don't remember which one; I think it was the lovely, rococo old Biltmore Theatre that stood at the northwest corner of the Biltmore Hotel. The hotel gloriously survives, but the theatre with its rich history—Katherine Cornell had trod the boards in tights there as Shaw's Saint Joan—has long since fallen to the wrecking ball.

Anna Lucasta was a different kind of theatre for that time, and Dee a different kind of actress—we were confronted with a new kind of actress in a new kind of play. Imagine my surprise, then, to find that—for whatever reason—the show doesn't so much as rate a mention in Simi Horwitz's accompanying fine interview with Dee and her husband, Ossie Davis. At any rate, it certainly was an eye-opening experience for me. Originally, playwright Phillip Yordan had written his realistic but romantic story to be about Polish-Americans, and had set it in an urban lower-middle-class Polish-American milieu.

The talented black artists of an ambitious young theatre group, the American Negro Theatre, without fuss, matter-of-factly, and rather boldly, had claimed the play and made it their own. If it contained a racial statement, the statement was implicit, not overt—it was a human statement that didn't change the play's original sense or sensibility. Cast, play, and production worked brilliantly together. Without making a point of ethnicity, ethnicity nevertheless lent a special piquant tang and flavor to its staging. The characters didn't have to be labeled Polish-American, African-American, or labeled at all. They were fellow Americans to whom we could relate, and Dee's Anna was one of the first black heroines who could make an unfortunately still racially divided society buy it—and accept her magnetic Anna as a heroine. Anna—a heroine? Well, yes. It's true Anna was sort of a prostitute, but she was also sort of a heroine. And Dee was irresistible—sexy, beautiful, vivid, vibrant, and a skilled, knowledgeable actress, as well. She was dynamite! I believe her riveting performance in Anna Lucasta propelled the then-virtually unknown actress to potential stardom, at a time when stardom for black artists did not come easy.

It was only potentially, too, that I was then the complete theatre enthusiast I have become. I realize now that I didn't know all that much about theatre, but through Jerry Blunt's tough tutelage at what has become the Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy, I was learning. I saw the play so many years ago that memory of certain specifics has grown hazy—I don't recall as much as I'd like to about Anna Lucasta's long-ago production or its other cast members, but I understand the great Davis was one of them. He must have played the handsome, perceptive young man who cared enough about Anna, and had the good sense, to make an honest woman of her. If so, Anna Lucasta was the start of something big, and it was a portentous bit of casting—Dee and Davis have co-starred as man and wife, and professional partners, ever since. They are beloved, and their partnership has been a lifelong smashing success. They have earned the homage the Screen Actors Guild now pays them with its Lifetime Achievement Award. And Dee's Anna will remain in my memory as one of those indelible impressions the evanescence of theatre so magically provides.