[Documents menu] Documents menu

A free-wheeling conversation
with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee

In Back Stage, Friday 9 March 2001, 06:47 PM EST

New Rochelle, New York--"Performing artists are less political today than they were years ago because they're not called on to be political," asserts actor-writer-director-cum-activist Ossie Davis. "Actors today are busy promoting themselves. In addition, they don't like defining the issues or the strategies.

"Years ago, you could stick a mike into the face of Harry Belafonte, Burt Lancaster, Danny Kaye, or Marlon Brando and they'd speak about the injustices in Selma," Davis continues. "They knew what to say because it fell into the existing rhetoric. Now the whole struggle is in disarray. We have freedom. What we don't have is equality!" And that (achieving equality), suggests Davis, is a somewhat amorphous, not readily negotiated, entity.

In the world of entertainment, the problem for African-American artists is "lack of access to the levels of power." So adds actress-writer Ruby Dee, Davis' wife of 53 years, who has joined us in the dining room of their lovely New Rochelle home, paper towel in hand. Noting a coffee ring on the table where Davis has left his cup, she wipes it clean.

"There is still a patronizing attitude in the media towards African-Americans," she says, "although it [the presentation of blacks on screen] is a notch above the exotic savage we used to see. Now he can be beautiful, like Denzel Washington, but most of the time he's still there to be the white hero's sidekick or to save a white woman.

"You don't see inter-racial romance or a middle-class black family dealing intelligently with some problem. When African-Americans are on screen, they've usually got guns. I am an actress, wife, mother, and own my own home and I have never seen my experiences reflected on the screen."

These emotionally charged topics-and many others-have been on the minds of Dee and Davis for 50-plus years. Indeed, the two theatre artists, each of whom boasts illustrious professional resumes, have served in the forefront of political activism for most of their working lives.

They've sued in Federal Court for black voting rights, and risked their careers resisting McCarthyism, and, most recently, faced arrest for protesting the New York cop killing of Amadou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant. Still, it's their roster of credits that most distinguishes them.

They made their film debuts jointly in "No Way Out" (1950), starring Sidney Poitier, followed by featured roles on Broadway in "A Raisin in The Sun" (1959) For PBS, they created the 1980-1982 series "With Ossie and Ruby" and produced "A Walk Through the Twentieth Century With Bill Moyers" (1984), and "Martin Luther King: The Dream & The Drum" (1986). In 1976, they produced the first American feature to be shot entirely in Africa by black professionals, "Countdown at Kusini," with Davis directing. They both starred in "Roots: The Next Generation" (1978), a gig which brought Dee her second of seven Emmy nominations.

Davis' credits (without Dee) include the title role in the 1956 telecast of "The Emperor Jones," the 1970 movie, "Cotton Comes to Harlem." He starred on Broadway (1986) and on screen (1996) in "I'm Not Rappaport" with Walter Matthau and with Matthau and Jack Lemmon in "Grumpy Old Men" (1993).

As a writer, Davis is perhaps best known for his controversial play, "Purlie Victorious" (1961), a breakthrough piece that both embraced and mocked racial stereotypes, decades ahead of its time.

Among Dee's solo credits: starring in the film, "The Jackie Robinson Story" (1990) and breaking ground as the first black woman to play lead roles at the Stratford, Connecticut-based American Shakespeare Festival-Kate in "Taming of the Shrew" (1965) and Cordelia" in "King Lear" (1965). She won an Obie Award for the title role in Athol Fugard's "Boesman and Lena" (1970), opposite James Earl Jones.

She too is a writer. Her 1998 solo show, "One Good Nerve," based on her best selling collection of short stories, folk tales, and poems, is still popular on the touring circuit.

And on Sunday, March 11, Dee and Davis will be honored for their career and humanitarian accomplishments. The Screen Actors Guild has selected them as the 37th recipients of The Life Achievement Award. The presentation will take place at the seventh Annual SAG Awards, telecast live, from the Los Angeles Shrine Center, on Turner Network Television (TNT).

Art and Politics

What's striking in chatting with Davis and Dee, during a two-hour period one wintry afternoon, is just how intensely committed they are to the idea that art and politics are inseparable. They both firmly believe that the arts have the capacity to make viewers more human and teach them, at least on some level, how to live.

"The struggle and the arts are connected almost by definition," says Davis, pointing to the late actor Paul Robeson as the very embodiment of what the artist "could and should do." Robeson, an actor and basso, was known for his radical politics from the 30s on.

"Martin [Luther King] was an artist and so was Malcolm [X], although not to the same extent. They were all great story-tellers and [metaphorically speaking] singers and dancers."

The transforming moment for Davis occurred in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused Marian Anderson admission to Constitution Hall.

"When I heard Marian Anderson sing, those elements in my personality that were formed in the south as a protective shield to keep me from being lynched-the subterfuge by which I lived-fell away. Her performance created a bond between me and my people, me and my history. I had a sense of certainty that no matter how dark it is now, one of these days it'll change.

"No, that's not optimism. Optimism is small and personal. Hope and faith are much bigger. Shelley said it best when he was describing Prometheus. 'To hope until hope itself creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates.' You do the thing with the greatest of ease because it's impossible. Like great art. I speak from a chosen vantagepoint. That doesn't mean everyone has to have the same opinions. But that's what I stand for and die by."

Dee whose speaking style is far less oratorical than her husband's-indeed, its' soft and breathy-shares his vision and is equally hopeful. She cites the growing number of behind-the-scene players who are African-American. Among these: Spike Lee, Lawrence Fishburne, Danny Glover, Whitney Houston and, of course, Oprah. They have the money and the clout to create and market the kind of films they want, she points out.

Self-determination is the key. Indeed, that's how Dee and Davis have survived in the business, they contend. Instead of being dependent on Broadway or Hollywood, they've employed venues that were open to them-churches, schools, community centers-and forged original pieces that spoke to the audiences in those settings.

"We've paid special attention to African-American literature, [turning novels and short stories into plays] and found that there was an unexpressed hunger for it," notes Dee. "We've always believed in the power of community theatre, and street corners, and churches."

Despite the fact that Dee and Davis are household names today, they've spent much of their professional lives (early on in the game, anyway) performing outside the limelight, they underscore.

Now, of course, it's different. They have no shortage of starring roles offered to them, but at one time, Dee recalls, "I had to accept certain realities and make certain choices. Will I spend my life battering through the stupidity and meanness and injustice or will I go where I can see sky? I've always set my sights on those doors that I can open, where there's the possibility that some work can be done."

"One of the traps we've tried to avoid is the presentation of ourselves as victims or beggars," adds Davis. "Ruby and I have insisted that we have control over our lives and destinies. We've never tapped on the door, hat in hand, 'please, please, take me.'

"We're going somewhere, even if it's only around the Goddamn corner, but we're going on our own power and our own steam and when the time comes we'll give each other our own Oscar and attend our own funerals and screw the rest of it if necessary."

Twentieth Century Journey

In many ways, their lives reflect the 20th century African-American journey, having witnessed and played a part in the changing cultural-political landscape. In their readable and informative memoir, "With Ossie & Ruby-In This Life Together" (Morrow, 1998), they paint an evocative portrait of their lives-individually and jointly-at home, in the theatre, and in the world.

Each of them has experienced racism first hand; the Georgia-born Davis, perhaps more blatantly than Dee who was a Cleveland native and raised in New York City. Davis was the son of an illiterate railroad construction worker who later in life fancied himself a healer and sold herbal concoctions. Davis' ambition was to be a playwright and he attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., before heading to New York City.

The daughter of a railroad train waiter, Dee had her sights set on an acting career, but attended and graduated from Hunter College because her family valued education above anything else. At the same time (while still in school), she honed her acting skills by performing in various plays around town.

High points in her life included being cast in Genet's, "The Balcony" and as Mary Tyrone in a "Long Day's Journey Into Night." "I usually played good girl wives and mothers. And truthfully those good-girl roles were stretches." Equally significant, was her discovery of African-American literature-specifically the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston-readings that opened new vistas of understanding.

For Davis the epiphany was jazz, which he describes as "integral" to who he is, likening the experience (jazz in his life) to "breathing in and out." Another revelatory moment was his delivering the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral. "The pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement," he insists.

Davis and Dee met in 1946 when they were both cast in the Broadway show, "Jeb"; loved bloomed quickly, and two years later, they were hitched, Davis' first trip down the aisle, Dee's second. The Davises have three grown children, a son, musician Guy Davis, and two daughters, Nora and Hasna, both educators. And they have seven grandchildren.

Professionally, Dee and Davis have slowed down, but neither has any intention of retiring. "I don't like the word 'retire,' " says Dee. "There may be a shift of emphasis-some physical and mental adjustments-as age creeps up-but I like the idea of looking forward."

Still, after more than half a century in the business, they can't help looking back and wondering if they might have done it differently.

"There are some things I would change," Dee grows thoughtful.

"Marry a broker," Davis quips.

"I wish I had trusted my instincts more," Dee ignores his comments. "Racism undercuts confidence. I wish I had known that sooner."

"No, once you decide to be black," Davis interrupts, "you change nothing. Once you made that decision, forget it!"

Davis has a keen sense of irony. With a self-deprecating chuckle, he concedes being known for "vocal overproduction and an over-capacity to take myself seriously, which means I may be a bit of a bore. But what I'm really identified with is being Ruby Dee's husband."

She smiles slightly, as if it's a line she has heard many times before.

Different Views

Theirs is an easy-going, mutually respectful relationship; despite their obvious differences in tone, style, and viewpoint.

Davis tends to make speeches, frequently in stentorian tones, yet is paradoxically relaxed and accessible. Dee is more aloof, a woman of fewer words, but more dogmatic positions.

Consider this: Dee is a staunch advocate of "the mystical," insisting there is much more to life than what one can see. Davis, on the other hand, seems a little uncomfortable in the face of these ideas. "We're religious, but not superstitious."

Dee feels race is the defining experience in America. Davis says that class may be more important, although race and class are inter-related.

On rap music: neither endorses it, but Dee is clearly more open to it.

"I don't understand it," she says, "but I like the idea of young people expressing themselves. Yes, I like it."

"I'm puzzled by rap," that's all Davis has to say on the subject. On colorblind casting: Dee views the very discussion a "sad commentary in a multi-cultural society," suggesting that colorblind casting is essential.

Davis is committed to the concept of colorblind casting, but has some reservations and is willing to voice them. "It's a tool, like affirmative action. Neither one should be accepted as a way of life, but rather a way to correct a past distortion and bring us closer to the truth. Colorblind casting shouldn't violate common sense."

Dee does not worry about what theatregoers-black or white--perceive when they view her plays. She won't censor herself. Davis, however, addresses issues of black self-image and wonders is he creating characters that appeal to stereotypes? And, he admits to reining in excess expressions of anger.

"I don't want to offend a captive audience. Out of respect for your audience you try and temper what you do. If you're only looking at your own condition you can go mad. How to be true to that madness and, at the same time, fair to your audience is a line artists should be concerned with."

Davis has certainly received his share of flak from black theatregoers in connection with his play, "Purlie Victorious," a work that comically mocked racial stereotypes, in a period when that was not being done.

"Some of my black audiences wanted to see blacks as serious figures to offset the clown-image that many Americans had of blacks. And here I was showing blacks [along with whites] as clowns. The audiences had valid reservations and I might have reconsidered my play in light of their judgement. But Malcolm [X] loved the play and that helped us stand our ground."

New Forms of Racism

On critics, Davis and Dee are in synch. They both cite the critics' "cultural bias" in reviewing plays by or about African-Americans, and how critics have certain expectations about who blacks are and are not. And if those preconceived notions are violated in a play or movie, the critics shout "falsification!"

"After all," Dee mocks the dated stereotypes, " 'African-Americans don't do ballet or play tennis or golf.' Critics still see blacks as 'the other,' an 'exotic.' What amazes me are the critics' audacity and lack of humility in response to other people's cultures. There's a bedrock of meanness and a tone of superiority."

Davis sees the "critics' cultural bias" as part of a larger problem. "Criticism used to be an art practiced by educated people. Now you don't know what any of them are looking for in anything."

Both Dee and Davis make the point that racism is, for the most part, much subtler-and therefore more difficult to combat--than it used to be. "Years ago, it was personal. Someone was a racist and you could address that," recalls Dee. "Now you have people-and these include friends of ours whom we like and respect-who don't see themselves as racists. They don't have racist ideas. But because they are in some ways the beneficiaries of racism-they are racists!" Interestingly, neither has found ageism-and for Dee sexism-too problematic. Dee says she has been restricted in the roles available to her because she is an African-American, but being a woman is ultimately more defining to her. "Wherever I go, I'm a woman." She adds, "When I was doing voice-overs years ago, the only producers in the room were white men. Now you see as many women and quite a few are women of color."

On aging, "We're still trying to define ourselves. One thing is for sure, the movement of protest is getting older. We can take chances and say what we want. We can be Don Quixote with muscle, not a mule, but a fine stallion." "On a motorcycle," Davis notes, deadpan "I have less opportunities than I used to, but I don't think there's any prejudice against me because of my age."

Shared Concerns

Davis stresses that whatever may separate them from other performers, in the end, there is also common ground. He talks about the dangers of downsizing and the growing impact-for good and for bad-of technology, and hopes that a union like SAG will look after its workers and encourage the movies to fulfill their role as educator.

"Motion pictures can tell us what our rights are and who we are. Should we lie down and be downsized out of existence or do we do what the kids did in Seattle and confront the mother-fuckers." He is talking about the protests against globalization that took place several months ago when the World Trade Organization convened in Seattle.

Beyond forging overt political agendas, motion pictures-or the "image-makers," as Davis dubs them--have the power to function covertly. "Movies created our concepts of freedom--owning a television set, owning an automobile." And the image-makers have contributed to the difficulties aspiring performers have today, Davis suggests. Empty values and fake allegiances-the rush for fame and fortune at the expense of more enduring goals--are at the core of the problem.

Generally, he believes newcomers are experiencing more roadblocks than he and Dee did when they were launching their careers.

"There are so many more people coming into the business today with high hopes and false expectations. For African-American performers, the problem becomes even more complex. "Because there are more opportunities, they don't see the racism, they don't feel their own exclusion."

Dee talks about changing economic realities, asserting she could not have had the life she has enjoyed if she were entering the industry today. The high cost of living, especially the price of housing, would have jettisoned her dreams. Today it would be virtually impossible to be a wife, mother, and actress, without private resources, she says.

Together Forever

One constant in her life, regardless of era, she insists, is her long-term marriage to Davis. Despite the built-in difficulties of a theatre marriage-the money problems, jealousies, and outside temptations-Davis and Dee would have found each other and stayed together. Dee puts forth the idea that theirs was a marriage that was meant to be. Fate and kismet played a role.

"There was something in the atmosphere that joined us together!"

Davis interrupts, "She'll come back to bug me. But I've warned her against that." Turning to Dee, "I love you to death while you're alive, but after that your franchise is over. Don't be coming back!"

To quote the subtitle of their book, they are indeed "In This Life Together." And that also means facing death together. Their memoir considers the eventuality, ending on a note that is at once macabre, comic, and poignant.

They write that their final arrangements have been made. "Cremation after a public ceremony, and then, into an urn. A special urn, large enough and comfortable enough to hold both our ashes. Whoever goes first will wait for the other. When we are united at last, we want the family to say good-bye and seal the urn forever. Then on the side, in letters not too bold-but not too modest either-we want the following inscription: 'Ruby and Ossie-In This Thing Together.' "