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Ruby Dee And Ossie Davis: Their Activism Is No Act

"I know, I know," she says. "I always thought of it as something you watch on TV."

Brunch of Champions

Davis and Dee arrive early for an interview at Yvonne's, a restaurant on Fifth Avenue here in Pelham. There are linen napkins on the tables, sunshine on the silverware, the velvety voice of Arthur Prysock on the sound system. Other diners are making a fuss, shoulders twisting, hellos ventured. But soon the two are brunching on waffles and fried chicken.


"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
ABOUT THE HONORS

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.

This is why the fussing went on: They're celebrities, and they've endured. On the big screen, he's appeared in, among other films, "The Cardinal" (1963), "A Man Called Adam" (1966), "The Scalphunters" (1968), "Harry and Son" (1984), "Joe Versus the Volcano" (1990), "Doctor Dolittle" (1998) and several Spike Lee movies, including "Do the Right Thing" (1989), "Jungle Fever" (1991) and "She Hate Me" (2004).

Among her films have been "Go, Man, Go!" (1954), "A Raisin in the Sun" (1961), "The Balcony" (1963), "Buck and the Preacher" (1972), "Cat People" (1982), "Just Cause" (1995) and Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever."

A waitress, Sharri Parker, pulls out a tattered postcard photo, circa 1953. It's of Davis and she wants him to sign it. "This was taken by Mr. Carl Van Vetchen," he says of the famed photographer.

"Let me see it," says Dee. "Oh, my. Yes, I remember. You were appearing onstage in New York."

Davis gazes a long while at the photo. Time has flown.

He was born in Cogdell, Ga., in 1917. There was food on the table, but he wanted out. At the time, Howard University was a mecca for bright young minds, particularly in the arts. "I wanted to be in that circle of people who were pulled together by [philosophy professor] Alain Locke," he remembers. "Locke seemed to specialize in locating talent and finding a place for it."

She was born in Cleveland in 1924 but grew up in Harlem. There were piano, dance and voice lessons. "My stepmother wanted to be an actress," she says. Harlem was full of activists. There were rent strikes and race riots. She had one eye on the activists, another on the acting community. She was admitted to Hunter College.

Both say their parents were not learned folk. But they were savvy and noble, honorable and hardworking.

"His father, my father, were role models of different sorts," Dee says. "We learned about the importance of being black. You had to amount to something. It wasn't always Robeson, but the little people who pushed us, sensing that there was more to life than their own experiences. They sacrificed. It was an extraordinary and unconditional love."

In 1939, Georgia accent and all, Davis made his first stage appearance in New York with the Rose McClendon Players. Dee made her first appearance a year later in the city with the American Negro Theatre. The work came intermittently, as it does for all actors.

"My experiences with New York are divided before I went to World War II and when I came back," he says.

He served in the Army with a Negro medical unit that eventually would send him to Liberia. While in the Army, he read plenty of W.E.B. Du Bois and honed his political mind.


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