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