ACTRESS Ruby Dee remembers ``the faded Southern gentility'' of Amanda Wingfield, the unforgettable mother in Tennessee Williams's play ``The Glass Menagerie.'' But ``it was one of those roles I left to white actresses.'' Amanda, one of the juiciest parts in contemporary theater, had been traditionally off limits to black actresses. Then Josephine Abady of the Cleveland Play House tried to cast Ms. Dee in the part, but she wasn't available. When Zelda Fischhandler of the Arena Stage here tempted her with the role again this year, the time was right, and Dee took the leap. The result is a fierce, deeply moving, even at times funny performance, and certainly an unorthodox one.
``In [Amanda's] frantic search for salvation and security, she does, uh, mad things - sobs, becomes garrulous, ... tries to make her daughter a saleable product [in the marriage market]'' Dee says. ``And I don't know if anybody's ever looked at Amanda that way before, but that's how she struck me.'' In rehearsal, she adds, ``it became a part I wondered why I couldn't have done years ago when Tennessee was alive, and he could have helped, to talk about some of the ... trans-cultural aspects of it.''
This Arena cast is all black, from Dee, its star, to Jonathan Earl Peck as Tom, Tonia Rowe as Laura, and Ken LaRon as the gentleman caller Jim Connors. So is director Tazewell Thompson.
Dee sits sipping tea in a room at the theater which overlooks the bobbing boats of Washington Harbor on this crisp blue day. She talks about the reason behind her decision to do this role first made famous by Laurette Taylor: ``The whole world does Shakespeare; the whole world does Tennessee Williams. ... It occurred to me that I was denying myself mightily by not trying Amanda.''
She talks of the melting of racial stereotypes in theater today: ``It's much like the Japanese doing `King Lear': Each culture brings to these universal masterpieces their own particular cultural history. ... I reckon that there are those people who are incensed that black people would try to do this play by a white Southern male.''
She mentions a New York Times review (Oct. 16) that came as ``a little slap, a rude awakening,... a major, uninformed step backward.''
THE review, by Laurie Winer, panned the production, although the reviewer wrote, ``The main problem with this production is not race-related. No, this `Menagerie' tramples on the internal poetry of the characters, on the very heart of the play itself.''
Some lines about the incongruity of the ``gentleman callers'' in an all-black production riled Dee particularly. Ms. Winer wrote, ``Forget the improbability that a black woman in the 1930s would recall long-ago beaux who were prominent young planters on the Mississippi delta and who went on to become vice-presidents of banks....''
Dee says, ``At the time of this piece - in my lifetime, in my mother's lifetime [there were] landed black people, landed planters, and wealthy [blacks]. There had even been [pre-Civil War] blacks who owned slaves. That woman was misinformed.''
We are facing each other at a round table. Dee, who projects so effectively on stage, is murmuring sotto voce, her low velvety voice sometimes hesitant as she summons up the words. There she is - all 5 ft., 1 in. of her, swathed in a gray-and-white tweed stole with black fringe, over a silk dress with a purple velvet vest. She seems faintly vulnerable, protected in layers against the world. Her large, expressive eyes are the focus in a face in such full bloom that it's a surprise to learn she made her Broadway debut in ``Jeb'' in 1946.
But she can defend herself very well, thank you, with the ultimate weapon of words: ``I remember seeing Lorraine Hansberry's play `The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.' It was all right when she wrote `Raisin in the Sun' [in which Dee appeared on Broadway]. But the critics almost killed her when she wrote `Sidney Brustein,' which I thought was a better piece of writing. But it was about whites; it was political, intercultural, interracial, Jewish, uh huh. It was not specifically about being black in America.
`SOMEONE once said to Martin Luther King Jr.: Talk about civil rights; don't talk about the Vietnam war; don't talk about war and peace; stay on your turf. So that was one of the reasons why, I suppose, I hadn't looked at Amanda seriously. It's the same reason I hadn't looked at Mary Tyrone.''
But her friends kept pressing her to try the part of Mary Tyrone, the mother ravaged by drugs in Eugene O'Neill's great American tragedy ``Long Day's Journey Into Night.'' And so she did it. She had broken the Shakespearean barrier in 1965, when she became the first black actress to appear in major roles like Kate in ``The Taming of the Shrew'' and Cordelia in ``King Lear'' at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. She's also appeared in such classic roles as Iris in ``The Birds'' and Cassandra in the ``Agamemnon.'' In traditional casting, she's played a range of roles, winning an Obie for her performance in ``Boesman and Lena,'' playing Lutibelle in the black musical hit ``Purlie Victorious'' (by her husband, Ossie Davis), winning a Drama Desk Award for ``Wedding Band,'' and, of course, originating the role of Ruth in ``Raisin the Sun,'' as well as playing it on film. Her latest film role is Mother Sister in Spike Lee's controversial ``Do the Right Thing.''
But Dee doesn't just perform someone else's words. As a writer, adapter, columnist, and scriptwriter, she also writes her own words. Coming up in February on PBS's ``American Playhouse'' is Dee's own ``Zora Is My Name,'' in which she stars. It's about a paradoxical black woman, Nora Nealle Hurston, a short-story writer and novelist who was also an anthropologist and folklorist and who had been a manicurist and a maid. ``Zora'' is set in the 1920s and '30s, and it deals with this ``extraordinarily gifted woman who came before her time and who believed in the black American expression, who was greatly criticized because the stories she collected and wrote did not relate to the racial struggle,'' says Dee. ``She wrote about people without regard to racism often, which angered some of her peers.
`SHE was a very controversial figure [who] didn't believe in school integration. She believed that black children would be harmed by it. She thought that whites would undermine the gifts and the spontaneity and the brilliance. She said they'll take away your teachers. And they did, too.
``She said, `Who gives their children to the enemy to teach? How do you give your children to the slave master to educate? What will happen is that they will educate them to remain slaves.'''
Dee says she thinks that, economically and politically, the black woman is at the bottom of the barrel in the United States. But she adds that ``the nature of racism is that it grinds down the soul of the man more finely than it does the soul of the woman. When you want to conquer a people or subject it, you destroy the male component. I think the concentration is there.''
A Hunter College graduate, Dee had gotten her first break with a role in ``On Striver's Row'' at the American Negro Theater in Harlem, where she grew up.
``The Glass Menagerie'' continues through Nov. 26.