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Ruby Dee And Ossie Davis: Their Activism Is No Act

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page N01


They're an ageless couple, products of a world of art and protest that seems long gone now.

To hear Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee tell it, the '40s and '50s were beautiful, a time to accomplish things on both the stage and the picket line.

"I didn't know they'd give it to people like us," says Ruby Dee of the Kennedy Centor Honors. " . . . I always thought of it as something you watch on TV." (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

_____Kennedy Center Honors_____
Photo Gallery: Honorees
Warren Beatty
Elton John
Joan Sutherland
John Williams

Every year since 1978

the Kennedy Center has saluted a handful of national icons for their "lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts." This year's honorees are to be celebrated tonight with a gala performance and dinner at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The show will be broadcast Dec. 21 at 9 p.m. on Channel 9.

"I had been profoundly influenced by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes," says Davis.

"I'd come from a background in New York of picketing and protesting," says Dee.

They met in 1946 during rehearsals for a play. Manhattan at that time could feel experimental: a place of lively protests, avant-garde theater, radical little magazines. They married two years later. There were struggles, but they always managed to find work. And those were the days when not many blacks found work in the thea-tuh.

Their careers have embraced stage, film, TV, radio and voice-over narration. There have been many joint appearances. And many other artists who benefited from their writing and producing and have gone on to their own successful careers.

Now comes a grand tribute, as Davis and Dee are being feted this year at the Kennedy Center Honors for their theatrical and film achievements. Only two other married couples have received the Honors jointly -- Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. (There have been other artistic partners who received joint Honors.)

The Kennedy Center refers to them as "a greatly revered couple of stage and screen." But it also acknowledges their work has "thrown open many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America's multicultural humanity."

They were the first couple of the civil rights movement and seemed to be everywhere during the '60s -- in Selma, beside Martin, at Malcolm's funeral.

Recent generations might well know them from Spike Lee's movies or maybe their eclectic PBS series, "With Ossie and Ruby," which was both short-lived (1980-82) and lauded.

Two theater rats. Two leftists.

"I didn't know they'd give it to people like us," says Dee. "Oh, let me hush."

"It's quite a big deal," Davis says, the words rolling up deep and rich.

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