"When World War II was over, there was a strong feeling in the country that racism had to be attacked," Davis says. "The artistic community seemed to be leading the way. It wasn't just stories for dramatic purpose, and it wasn't just white folks doing good. It was a series of serious statements made by Americans of what kind of world we would have from here on in. And in that background, there were questions about the Sovet Union and colonization in Africa."
In 1946, they both reached Broadway in "Jeb." The production, staged at the Martin Beck Theater, was about a black soldier home from World War II who has to do battle with the Ku Klux Klan. For Broadway, it was a risky and novel production, with the tragedies of racism right there on the stage. Davis played the lead. "Jeb," for all its good intentions, lasted only a week. But it had set something loose: a fierceness, an aggressiveness in the minds of playwrights and actors. "That," Davis says of the production, "was the kind of theater Ruby and I came into. It was already part of the civil rights struggle."
"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)
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.
Dee's first marriage -- to a gentleman who happened to be a midget -- had fallen apart. In New York theatrical circles, Davis was someone being talked about. He was physically big, well-read and confident.
"He had already told me he was a genius," she says.
"It's the truth!" he howls.
Their cackles have a way of melting into one another.
They fell in love. She once gave him an inscribed picture of herself: "Dear Ossie, When I think of you, let there be silence and no writing at all. Ruby." He smiled the country smile when she handed it to him.
They went across the river to New Jersey to marry in 1948.
"We were working," she remembers. "We didn't have the whole day off, did we?"
"I think we had Thursday off," he says.
They took a bus back across the river, back to their apartment.
"The McCarthy years cut so much out from under us," he says.
For a period, they were blacklisted. They survived McCarthyism, though FBI agents trailed them around; they suffered the pain of being out of work, and remained determined to keep raising money for families of lynch victims.
Their politics could be called radical by some standards, constantly challenging the status quo, as they planted their feet on many an occasion to the left of the Democratic Party. Like Robeson, one of their heroes, their astonishing artistic credentials flowed into their political activities.