‘Ruby and I came along,’ says Ossie, ‘when being black was not yet fashionable’
The troupers first met in 1946 as featured players in a troubled Broadway drama called Jeb, and still remember how the business manager—a young man named David Merrick—tried to keep it alive with economies like substituting radishes for strawberries. The show folded after nine performances, but nearly 35 years later, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis are still running—and with great distinction and courage. In a lesson he probably learned from someone other than Merrick, Davis proclaims: “My law of compromise is, ‘Never sell more of yourself to the devil than you can afford to buy back before the sun goes down.’ ”
Their conscience has cost them almost as much work as their color. During the early ’50s they defended Mc-Carthyite targets like Paul Robeson, and publicly protested the execution of the Rosenbergs. Later they appeared with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and Davis presided at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington. As Ossie summed it up recently: “We have been at the right tea parties, but we have also been at the wrong damn tea parties.”
There were times when they had to scrimp out a living reading from black literature at churches, schools and union halls. En route they discovered writers like Langston Hughes, Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose work has fueled Davis and Dee ever since, up to their current PBS series, With Ossie & Ruby. Its 13 weekly episodes feature tributes to black artists from poet Gwendolyn Brooks to Louis Armstrong, performed by actors like Robert and Kevin Hooks and musicians like Della Reese and Max Roach. “It’s almost as if this is where we were headed the last three decades,” says Davis.
They are not, mind you, opposed to commercial work. They also co-starred on Broadway in 1959’s A Raisin in the Sun, for instance, and Dee has won stage awards on her own for Boesman and Lena and Wedding Band. Her other credits include the TV movies I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Roots: The Next Generations (as Queen Haley), along with a not so distinguished role as the doctor’s wife in ABC-TV’s Peyton Place.
Davis’ best-known solo acting credits came on TV. He played the title role in a 1955 Kraft Television Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, was a semi-regular on CBS’ lauded The Defenders and played Martin Luther King Sr. in the TV film King. As a writer, he has had four plays produced, including 1961’s Purlie Victorious, which carried a message of black pride for 261 performances on Broadway. The musical adaptation, Purlie, ran another 689.
Dee, born in Cleveland and raised in Harlem, was the daughter of a railroad porter. While earning a B.A. degree from Hunter College, she was accepted by the American Negro Theatre. She followed her first big Broadway play, Anna Lucasta in 1946, with innocuous film roles like the wife in The Jackie Robinson Story and was dubbed “the Negro June Allyson.”
“I don’t remember as a child feeling a lack of anything,” she says. “Before I latched onto the concept of stereotypes, not once did I reckon with the fact that I would never be a ‘Hollywood starlet.’ ” She cringingly recalls her first TV role as a maid: “The lady of the house said, ‘Hattie, did you seed the melons?’ and I said, ‘Oh, yes’um, I see’d ’em.’ ” Dee adds, “The white actresses I have known have been allowed to do 10 times more than I shall ever do.”
If Dee was shocked to discover discrimination, Davis was better prepared. He was born in Cogdell, Ga., the son of a railroad engineer who never learned to read or write but became a folk medicine practitioner—or what Southerners call an “herb doctor.” Davis spent three years at Howard University before moving to New York and a year at Columbia that “never did me or Columbia any good.” He joined a Harlem theater group, the Rose McClendon Players, but World War II intervened and he spent 32 months in Liberia, first as an Army surgical technician and later writing and producing shows for the troops. On his return, he says, “I knew I was going to be rejected, so I had very low expectations. But rejection did sting. In the theater it took a peculiar form of having to compete with your peers, like I did for Green Pastures on Broadway, to fight to say words you were ashamed of. Ruby and I came along at a time when being black was not yet fashionable. There was little in the theater for us except to carry silver trays and announce the grits wouldn’t hold the heat.”
“Luckily,” says Dee, “neither of us has been materialistic. One of the first things Ossie said to me was, ‘The way to increase your wealth is to decrease your wants.’ Our only luxury was ‘buying time’—people to help us with the children.” The Davises raised their three kids in a large, five-bedroom house 40 minutes from Broadway in New Rochelle. Davis says bringing them up was especially difficult because of the era: “Lifestyles we knew were falling, and there were no guidelines on such things as young adults bringing their lovers home for the night,” he recalls. “The bottom line always was, no matter what they did or wanted to do, the house was big enough to accommodate it, even if we disagreed totally,”
Daughter Nora, 30, says they were “disciplinarians but good parents. They took it seriously.” Her brother, Guy, 28, is a working musician, while Hasna (born La Verne), 24, is a writer. Hasna’s marriage to a Muslim and conversion to Islam four years ago didn’t shock her parents. (Davis and Dee are Baptists.) “It is her faith and it has never given me any problem,” Davis shrugs. She is the mother of their only grandchildren, Ihsaana, 3, and Abdul Muta’Ali, 1½.
Neither he nor Dee will admit their own ages. Ruby smiles, “Just say I’m in my late 40s. He’s in his late 50s. You can also say I always lie.” Davis laughs, “I’m too much of a gentleman to contradict her in public.” (Most sources list him as 63, her as 56.)
In private, there are creative contradictions between them. “Every time I write something—every line—I take it to him and say, ‘What do you think of this?'” says Ruby. “But he’ll do something and I won’t know about it until he’s gotten a reply back from the publisher! He doesn’t need me.” “I like solo when I’m writing,” confirms Davis. “But I like to act with Ruby because I’m a lazy actor—I’m never as well prepared as I should be.” They still tour several months a year with their two-person show of readings. (“Ninety percent of our income is from that,” Davis confides. “A date in San Antonio pays more than a guest spot on television.”)
Cleavon Little, a Davis-Dee friend and colleague, says, “They complement each other. She’s wild and kooky. He’s got a kind of coolness.” Says Dee herself: “Marriage is more complex than we think.” Agrees Davis: “I think flexibility is a good component of marriage. We argue all the time, even now, and in rage you say things you can’t take back no matter how kind and beautiful a thing becomes.” Obviously there hasn’t been permanent damage. “Nobody sets out to establish a marriage that is going to last 32 years,” says Ossie. “Somehow or other, we lucked out.”