Dynamic Duo

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 22, 1998; Page X03


In This Life Together

By Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee

Morrow. 476 pp. $25

Ossie Davis notes that although he and his wife, Ruby Dee, "have been regarded as successful actors working continually in the entertainment industry for over 50 years," they are not " `celebrities' in the common, tabloid sense of the word." "Neither of us," he observes, "has appeared in a `breakthrough' role, or series of roles that finally elevated us to the ultimate heights of stardom." They have appeared in scores of roles, but each has approached stardom only once: Dee as the mother in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" and Davis as the title character in his own "Purlie Victorious."

Their stories are interesting, instead, for deeper and more complicated reasons than mere celebrity. Though they are skilled and immensely appealing performers -- and though Davis, into the bargain, is a gifted if underrated writer -- this is not where their real distinction lies. Above all they are notable for solidity of character, loyalty to each other and their (by now) large extended family, and commitment to what they call "the Struggle," which they define as "the fight to end slavery, the battle to vote, the antilynching crusade; campaigns against racism, bigotry and prejudice; the battle to end McCarthy and his `ism'."

As anyone knows who has followed their long careers -- it was my great pleasure and privilege to see "Purlie Victorious" only a few days after its Broadway premiere in 1961 -- they are quite different people. Dee is small, light-skinned, strong but gentle, quiet, beautiful in ways at once ethereal and girlish. Davis is large, dark-skinned, bumptious, roughly and unconventionally handsome. Dee, who is in her seventies (and keeps her exact age a closely guarded secret), grew up in Harlem; Davis, who is 81, grew up in rural Georgia. But there are also important similarities. Both came from loving but poor families with strong fathers, both were exposed early to racial prejudice, though not surprisingly it was Davis in the Deep South who felt it most pointedly and painfully, and both had the good fortune for black Americans of their generation to receive college educations, Dee at Hunter College in New York City and Davis at Howard University here in Washington.

In this memoir, which is narrated in alternating voices -- the authors thank Sydne Mahone for helping them "with the organization of the material" -- the two look back across what are, obviously, long and productive lives, nearly a half-century of which has been spent as husband and wife; they were married in New Jersey, where "you could [then] get married in one day," on Dec. 9, 1948. Like many people who have chosen the theater as their livelihood, they began hesitantly, had protracted and occasionally discouraging apprenticeships, and only gradually achieved prominence and respect; also, like many other actors whose work has chiefly been in the theater rather than the movies and television, they understand that their roles have been more important than they are, that the true actor's task is to subordinate himself to the characters he plays instead of making them merely a projection of himself.

Both had their professional beginnings in theater companies that specialized in plays by and about African Americans: Dee in the American Negro Theater, Davis in the Rose McClendon Players. This enabled them to feel their way in supportive surroundings, to gain both self-confidence and a powerful sense of their identity and responsibilities as black Americans. Davis believes that all African-American literature and art is protest work at heart, and has constructed his working life around this conviction; Dee came later to it than he did but embraces it with equal ardor.

"Ruby and I have been lucky," Davis says. "We have managed to stay close to the very heart and center of the Struggle, invited in by whoever needed our talents; and yet we have remained in very essential ways detached and self-sufficient. Children of the Struggle, indeed -- it is not inconceivable that, had it been called for, we would have given our lives, but never did it become the ruler of our lives." The most important and revealing case in point is "Purlie Victorious," which as Davis acknowledges had its origins in "venom, rage and hate" that produced "not humans, but caricatures"; only when he turned it into a comedy, "laughing to keep from crying," in which blacks as well as whites were the sources and objects of humor, did it achieve humanity and find, at least to some measure, a popular audience far larger than the active battalions of "the Struggle."

Neither Davis nor Dee has always been able to resist the lure of the rhetorical and the doctrinaire. As a youth who had only recently come to Harlem from Georgia by way of Washington and Howard, Davis had receptive ears for communists with whom he spoke there; they "seemed not only to be clear thinkers and patient teachers, but also were action-prone." "I was never a Communist," he says, "but I was a fellow traveler." He then adds the crucial distinction: "Though layered, my loyalty was never split; always at the bottom, even if I did have to constantly shuffle my tactics, was black itself. I was `red' only when I thought it a smarter way of being `black.' " This presumably is why Davis is essentially unapologetic about what many other Americans would now regard, most charitably, as a youthful indiscretion; the particular conditions of African-American life, especially in the years when Davis and Dee were young, imbued radical ideology with a plausibility that it cannot have enjoyed for others. That communism engaged their sympathies may not have been wise, but it certainly was understandable.

Throughout their careers Davis and Dee mostly have played parts written specifically for black actors -- they have also performed "white" parts in plays by Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill, among others -- and have done so with self-evident pride. But though their race has defined their careers and their lives in central and inescapable ways, it has limited neither. At the same time that they have fought "the Struggle," they have transcended it, in so doing making powerful and persuasive examples of themselves.

Jonathan Yardley's Internet address is yardleyj@clark.net.

© 1998 The Washington Post Company