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The Star on Life's Stage

Ossie Davis Played a Major Role in Civil Rights

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page C01

It is a wonder he ever found time to do his own thing, which was acting, writing plays, directing, producing. Ossie Davis, who died yesterday in Miami Beach at the age of 87, was that rare American entertainer who would not sacrifice his commitment to the quest for human and civil rights for what was expected of an entertainer -- the requirement to scrounge and scrounge for the next gig.

He got work, all right, in part because of his versatility, stretching from live drama to TV to motion pictures. He and his wife, Ruby Dee, received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors two months ago. But he also snared legions of admirers for his commitment to "the cause": the cause shared by Martin and Malcolm and Fannie Lou Hamer and out-of-work bus drivers and Manhattan cleaning ladies. He was Zelig-like, always appearing in this or that community where the scales of justice didn't seem quite balanced.

The actor, playwright, activist: "Ossie was one of the most courageous and heartfelt men I've ever met," says theatrical director Billie Allen. (Mark Lennihan -- AP)

In those old black-and-white photos from the movement that have become so popular, so in vogue these days, there he is, in a coat, in a suit, wearing a hat, looking like some hep cat fresh off the A train in Harlem. At the rallies and marches, he'd recite the complaints and hug the downtrodden. It helped that his voice was beautiful, like some Southern preacher (he was born in Georgia) who had boned up on Shakespeare while no one was looking.

"While he was a great artist, first and foremost he was a civil rights activist," former New York City mayor David Dinkins recalled yesterday. "You would not find a righteous cause to which he and Ruby did not attach themselves and their names. They were there when there were no cameras around, and they were there time and time again."

Billie Allen, now a New York theatrical director, worked with Davis during the original Broadway run of "A Raisin in the Sun," which premiered in 1959. Davis was a struggling New York actor at the time, with his own aspirations of writing. He was the understudy to Sidney Poitier for the lead character of Walter Lee Younger.

"Ossie was one of the most courageous and heartfelt men I've ever met," said Allen. "His mind seemed to always be jumping double Dutch."

He couldn't stay still, she went on to say. He didn't just sit backstage during "Raisin." He wrote. "During that time he was writing 'Purlie Victorious' in his dressing room," recalled Allen. "You could hear him. He'd be in there writing and laughing."

"Purlie," a musical satire about the South and race, premiered on Broadway in 1961.

Upon the death of Malcolm X in 1965, Davis delivered a eulogy so striking, so sentimental, so passionate that many, blacks included, wondered if it would harm his career to be linked to the slain black revolutionary.

"When he eulogized Malcolm," said Allen, "my phone rang off the hook. I felt so transformed by what he did. It took him to another level in my book. To those who criticized Ossie, I'd say to them, 'I wish they would have asked me to eulogize Malcolm.' "

Davis's final words to Malcolm were these: "Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man -- but a seed -- which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was and is -- a Prince, our own black shining Prince! -- who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so."

Soon thereafter Davis began filming "A Man Called Adam," a film that starred Sammy Davis Jr. But the filmmakers wanted to fire Ossie Davis and he imagined it was because of his leftist leanings, his associations with Malcolm. Sammy Davis Jr. interceded on his behalf, and he kept the job.

A current generation of moviegoers would have seen Davis in films such as "Doctor Dolittle" (1998), "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "Jungle Fever" (1991). The latter two were directed by Spike Lee.

Last year, Davis returned to Howard University, which he attended, to lecture. Decades before, he had hitchhiked from Georgia to get to the nation's capital, hiding the little money given to him by his parents in his shoes.

This time, "He was one of those grand and moving godfathers of the most vital traditions in theater and literature," said Eleanor W. Traylor, chair of Howard's Department of English and one of Davis's hosts on campus. "And of course that Malcolm speech is just a classic. Ossie was absolutely interested in the most progressive scholarship, activism, and thought of the times."

His long life had introduced Davis to legends. He wrote a foreword to the 1990 edition of a book called "Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the African-American in the Performing Arts," by Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer. Davis's foreword is just two pages, but there's a lovely and melancholic swoon to his words:

"Sitting here remembering, looking at the pictures, reading the words, living my very small part of it all over again, fills me with pride; but also with a certain sadness: Ethel Waters having to steal out of Atlanta under the cover of darkness because she insisted that somebody tune the piano; Roland Hayes, world famous, the first black tenor to appear at Carnegie Hall, beaten in his Georgia hometown for sitting in the wrong seat in the shoestore; Marian Anderson, having to hide her accompanist behind a screen because he was white; Nat King Cole being dragged off the stage in Birmingham, Alabama, his hometown. Yet the beat went on, the music never stopped."

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