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Ruby Dee And Ossie Davis: Their Activism Is No Act

"They have a political resonance not all artists have," says civil rights historian Taylor Branch. "Ossie delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral at a time when not many Americans -- even blacks -- knew what to make of Malcolm. And there was Ossie, calling him 'my sweet black prince.' "

A Rocky Start

In 1946-47, they both were cast in Philip Yordan's "Anna Lucasta," first in the all-black production on Broadway, then with the touring company. There were high hopes that Hollywood would film the production with its all-black cast. It got filmed in 1949, but with a white cast. Davis, Dee and other cast members were crushed. (A black version finally made it to the screen in 1959, starring Sammy Davis Jr. and Eartha Kitt. The movie was largely dismissed, with critics complaining about Kitt's saucy demeanor.)

"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.

Dee got a coveted role in Lorraine Hansberry's galvanizing play "A Raisin in the Sun," in 1959. (Davis would come to replace Sidney Poitier, the lead, at one point in the production.)

Davis had originally arrived in New York intending to become a playwright, and he found quiet places to get his writing done. His "Purlie Victorious" arrived on Broadway in 1961; his wife co-starred. The play concerned a group of southerners confronting thorny racial issues. One New York critic opined that what "Purlie" was trying to say was that "what the Negro needs is less fatback and more fight-back, less cornpone and more courage, less civil rights by the teaspoonful and more by the shovelful -- and that the only way to get it is for the Negro to get up off his non-Caucasian rump and fight for it."

All was not bliss in this theatrical marriage. She had to remind him, hands on hips, strong words in the kitchen -- especially after the three children arrived -- that she had gifts, skills, and did not want to abandon her career while he was chasing his own.

"I'm sure Ruby got stuck with a lot of hard work," he says.

"Like the toilet breaking down!" she remembers.

"I led a cavalier life, coming and going," he admits.

They started to take the children on the road, found family members to baby-sit while they were both away and couldn't have the children with them.

"We tried every permutation of marriage -- and it worked out," he says.

When the '60s started, they stepped from stage -- and kitchen -- into new battles. There were dogs in Birmingham and murders in Mississippi and Klan marches in Georgia. There were ugly scenes in Chicago and lily-white suburbs resisting integration in Ohio.

Davis and Dee were wherever the movement happened to be.

Martin Luther King Jr. came to New York in 1963 following his release from the Birmingham jail. Davis and Dee hosted an event at a Manhattan hotel.

"We were good at fundraising," he says.

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