May 20, 1999
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have married artistry and family, showbiz and the Struggle, for more than 50 years.
by Rob Kendt
Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis are such an attractive and charming older couple, with such a long and revered public history on the stages of Broadway, the soundstages of Hollywood, and the podiums of union halls and churches, that it's easy to overlook the real miracle of their success: This is a pair of long-married artists who continue to dream and create, both together and separately, in their own self-made universe independent of the entertainment industrial complex. Though each has been well compensated for his and her various acting gigs onstage, in film, and on television, Dee and Davis have never had the kind of success that might have uprooted or seriously distracted them from their self-sustaining world of culture, creativity, activism, and family values.
As Davis admits in their recently published joint autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (William Morrow & Company, 1998), "Ruby and I have been regarded as successful actors working continually in the entertainment industry for over 50 years, and many assumptions about us--some quite incorrect--are based on that longevity. We have survived, of course, and that counted for much of the attention; but we are not "stars,' nor are we "celebrities'. . . Neither of us has appeared in a 'breakthrough' role, or series of roles that finally elevated us to the ultimate heights of stardom... We simply called ourselves laborers in the fields of the arts."
At a recent breakfast meeting with L.A. theatre groups to promote Dee's one-woman show, My One Good Nerve--which opens this weekend at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills and for which Davis serves as executive producer--Davis amended his description of his and Ruby's careers to the more ironic "peace workers on the Hollywood plantation."
Indeed, from the beginning, Dee and Davis both have not rejected opportunities that came their way, from their first Broadway success in the American Negro Theatre's Anna Lucasta, which ran for more than a year and toured the country, to the film roles for which they may be most widely known--Dee as a series of dutiful wives in A Raisin in the Sun, The Jackie Robinson Story, and St. Louis Blues, and more recently as a fiesty oldster in the TV movies Decoration Day and Having Our Say, and Davis in more recent years in such films as I'm Not Rappaport, The Client, Grumpy Old Men, Doctor Dolittle, and Twelve Angry Men.
Still, they are probably best known as a unit--for their radio show and PBS series, With Ossie and Ruby, in which they showcased black writers and storytellers, and their roles in Spike Lee's films Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever.
What is probably less known about them is that they're both writers themselves. Ossie, who stumbled fortuitously into an acting career, has always considered himself a playwright first (and proved it with 1961's Purlie Victorious on Broadway). Meanwhile Ruby, whose passion for performing was engendered in part by the writers of her generation, has culled her own writings from over the years--poems, character pieces, musings, shaggy dog stories--into My One Good Nerve, a "not-a-play" she performed willy-nilly at theatre benefits until Peggy Shannon, then artistic director of Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre, invited her to mount it there in 1995. Last year, producer Woodie King took Nerve to New York's Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse (at Hunter College, Dee's alma mater), with Charles Nelson Reilly directing.
Now Ruby, with Ossie backing her, will make her return to the L.A. stage--the couple's last professional appearance here being on the Anna Lucasta tour in 1947, before they were married. But while Ossie and Ruby do have their West Coast contacts and friends, they are clearly vacationing Easterners; their home is in New Rochelle, NY, and both prefer walking cities, like Ruby's native Cleveland or their longtime home, Harlem, to the sunny sprawl of L.A.
In conversation, the petite Ruby has a softly feminine, lilting, cultured tone, accenting every other phrase with an ironic little harrumph that sounds something like the reverse of a sigh, but there is clearly steel--and certainly more than one good nerve--under the silk. For his part, the tall, grandfatherly Ossie has a voice that now rasps more than it booms, but for all his ready humor this is clearly the same man who spoke up for the blacklisted Paul Robeson at Equity meetings in the 1950s, who memorably stood to eulogize Malcolm X as "our own black shining Prince" after his 1965 assassination, and who can still stand and deliver rousing stump speeches at a moment's notice.
"Some people are very lucky to come into this world with a thrust, and soon into my life my mother recognized it--that I came with this thing to express," recalled Ruby. "As early as I can remember I was reciting something on some platform, and my mother was encouraging me; I was writing poems and she would send them to the paper. In school, I would get singled out in speech classes.
"That's what I've been doing all my life: reciting, reading, going into languages--I go into a community and before I know it I'm talking like the people in that community. I'm like this sort of sponge for people, so I'm always gathering things to put in my sack. As an actor, you know, you carry a sack, and something about everyone you meet goes in it."
Not every actor, though, collects these human impressions into their own words. My One Good Nerve contains not only first person musings and rhymes but character narratives from voices as diverse as travelling businessmen to Langston Hughes' trickster character Jesse B. Simple. The way Ruby tells it, these aren't necessarily her own words, either.
"I've decided this lately--I wish I'd known sooner--that I am a medium through which impulses come," she said. "I feel like I just have to open the door, just sit there, and if I relax properly, anbyody can walk through me. It's like staring into something and eventually it starts staring back into you; you become it, and it becomes you."
A similar insight came to her about her acting years ago, when the writings of such playwrights and authors as Lorraine Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rosa Guy inspired Ruby to "become an instrument through which all these people and ideas that I was reading about in these books could march and live. After I decided I was never going to be a starlet in the Hollywood stable, after the grief of realizing that I was a black girl in America, and that because of it I would be denied access to certain roles--I deliberately decided to put that aside, I couldn't do anything about that--I was flooded over with love of black people, of black literature. I felt saturated with it.
"And then I realized that working with Ossie, discovering the literature and delving into the history, and communicating with people who have that in common--that spelled a life for me. I knew why I was on earth. Now I can't imagine what I'd be if wasn't like this. Would my life be significant? I mean, I start to think, Do other people have significant lives who are not black? What do they live about?"
She laughs as she says it, but she speaks from a pride and confidence which Ossie and Ruby wear like their skin, indeed on their skin--pride in their racial and cultural heritage which, though it has been tested as surely as any black person's must have been by the century that is ending, has been strengthened by their education and experience not only in the arts but in political activism, in what Ossie calls the "acts and arts of fellowship" with their community.
Actually, that should read "communities," for while they attribute much of their success to a sense of "belonging" to the African-American culture and audience, Ossie and Ruby's ties to the mainstream theatre community are long and deep.
As New York stage actors they were in the thick of the struggle against the anti-Communist blacklist of the 1940s and '50s, especially as it touched one of their friends, Paul Robeson. And their work with the blacklisted Morris Carnofsky and Howard Da Silva on the Off-Broadway show The World of Sholom Aleichem introduced them to a lifelong tradition of readings and "people's theatre" in synagogues, schools, and union halls, as well as introducing Ossie to a kind of scrappy humor in the face of suffering and oppression which he felt was "as black as it was Jewish," and which inspired him to turn a shrill would-be social-issue play about the Jim Crow South into a raucous satire, Purlie Victorious (later musicalized as Purlie!, a 1970 hit with Broadway audiences, though not with Ossie).
Their activism to this day focuses on theatre as a social force: In December, they used their 50th anniversary celebration as an occasion to raise funds for 12 small theatres, including the National Black Theatre, the Pan-Asian Repertory, and the New Federal Theatre.
"We always knew that we had to pay attention and make sure that the seedbed, the place from which we came, would be there for another generation," said Davis. "The American Dream is to make it from where you are to up there; it is not turning around and giving back. But somebody's gotta look back. So while we welcomed whatever opportunities there were, and took full advantage of them, we never cut the umbilical, we never burned the bridge. We've always tried to come back."
Ruby was quick to jump in here: "Looking back--we ought to change the word to looking forward. It's a looking forward thing to go back; it's a loving thing, it's a parenting thing, because you've got to get the territory prepared for your children."
Dee and Davis, who have three grown children themselves and seven grandchildren, may be right about the American Dream, even its African-American corollary (get out of the ghetto, move on up, it's another victory for the culture). And few fields are as cutthroat-competitive, or as auspiciously disproportionate in their assigning of victory and defeat, as the talent end of the entertainment industry.
All the more reason that these two old pros should be cherished, not only for their work but for what they've lived about. Ossie and Ruby's commitment to their craft and their culture is exceeded only by their commitment to each other--and, as they say, you can't have one without the other.