In the mid-1940s Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were touring the country in the family drama, "Anna Lucasta." When they played Los Angeles, the reviews were so good that talk of a movie sprung up. "Charles Chapman, Sidney Greenstreet, all of Hollywood's heroes, came, praising the production. We thought we had the movie in the bag," says Ossie Davis. "Then the movie was announced with Paulette Goddard, etc., etc. Everyone was white."
Dee and Daivs don't blame racism entirely for their limited stardom. But, during their 40-year careers on stage and in flim they have been passed over and blacklisted. Yet for a longtime audiences, critics and other performers have been paying attention to them becuase concurrent with their contribution as entertainers has been their participation in civil rights, labor and peace causes. It started with Dee speaking out against the executions ofJulius and Ethel Rosenberg, continued through fund-raising for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and close friendships with such charismatic leaders as paul robeson, Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. Davis' eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral and his keynote at the first black caucus dinner with Dee carved a creed for the 70s: "It's not the man, but the plan. It's not the rap but the map."
While they say they didn't suffer directly from their activism, whenever theatrical billings were slim, they had their reading circuit. Those dramatizations and a radio show they did for Kraft from 1974 to 1977 led to their current television project -- "With Ossie and Ruby" -- a 13-week series of dramatic and satrical sketches on PBS which debuts on Channel 32 tonight and on Channel 26 next Thursday.
At first they didn't pay attention to the offer for a series. They were in the middle of a college tour, Davis had just finished a television special on busing and Dee was in the final stages of writing her musical. But they were convinced by the creativity of executive producer Bob Ray Sanders and producer-director David Dowe, and by the promise that they would not be straitjacketed into black programming.
"Those cats were experimental, they were sassy, they like to break idols, chart new courses, tweak the nose," says Davis. "We weren't just an educational project for the black and minority experience," adds Dee. "And," Davis continues, "they ran away from that as fast as we were running."
Says Sanders, "They really care about what they are doing. During Ossie's taping of a Louis Armstrong tribute, everyone, including the cameramen, were cyring. They touched me as real humanists."
As they sit in their suite in the Watergate Hotel, it is obvious that Dee and Davis enjoyed their latest challenge. Obvious too, as the simple fact of their 34-year marriage indicates, is that they enjoy working together.
Davis, 63, a handsome presence whose shades of gray and brown make him look like a piece of polished marble, is friendly and open. In his resounding tone, the "cats" and "gigs" that pepper his conversation have a ring of genuine authority. Dee, 57, has a quick, poppinng laugh like Davis,' but she appears fragile. It's not just her small size or the breezy voice. Her own identity has eluded her. "I have been difficult to discover. I call it the many faces of Ruby Dee," she says.
"My life had been so irregular. Some people are directed, some people are more in tune with themselves. Maybe I was too lazy, too impatient, too distracted, but I was ignoring signals. Now I am paying attention."
Dee, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio, grew up in harlem. Armed with a language degree from Hunter College, she took a series of odd jobs, including factory work, until, in 1941, she signed up with the American Negro Theater and its other young performers,Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. The first notices to call her an important talent began in 1946 with "Lucasta." Her next raves came in 1959 with "A Raisin in the Sun." She played the wife in the "Jackie Robinson Story (1950), appeared in "Edge of the City" with Poitier in 1957, and with Poitier and Belafonte in "Buck and the Preacher" in 1972. Some of her movie performances were staid, predictable, leading to the tag the "Negro June Allvson." But her theater work was sometimes riveting, as in her award-winning portrayal of a South African outcast with James Earl Jones in the off-Broadway "Boesman and Lena," and as the black woman in love with a white man in "Wedding Band."
Davis took the road from Waycross, Ga., to Howard University, where a writing ambition was inspired by the great scholar, Alain Locke. Once in New York he touched base with another important Harlem theatrical movement, the Rose McClendon Players. In 1946, he made is debut as the veteran in "Jeb" and played opposite his future wife. Though work was sparse for a black actor, expecially one who aligned himself with the leftist politics of the 1950s, Davis gained respectable credits.
Looking back, he finds that his own play "Purlie Victorious," which debuted on Broadway in 1961 amid the expectations of a new day for the Negro actor, marked his est and worst moments in the theater. "The opening night was splendid," he recalls. "But closing night I was tear-stricken. We had been led to believe that we were bing considered for the Pulitzer Prize. It would have helped keep us on." Davis had wanted, and is still searching for, recognition as a writer but instead he wasat the crest of the 1970s black film bonanza, as a director and a featured actor.
Whatever problems they might have had cannot be attributed simply to racism, say Dee and Davis. "I might have been more aggressive. Sometimes I didn't want to leave the house for a challenge," says Dee, the small bowl of her forehead creased by agitated brows. "I retreated because I didn't want to compete for crumbs. There was some snobbiness too, the why go to Hollywood question . . . . But the realism is that we do live in a racial context." Says Davis, "there is a cycle of seeming acceptability. The Harlem Renaissance, then out with the Depression, then the '60s, everyone got black, then another depression." Dee interrupts gently, "let's talk about getting out of this depression."
"Ruby and I are known as people who have never hesitated to, aggressively if necessary, express our attitudes and be politically active when called upon," says Davis. "We are not just the average safe couple. We have been at the right tea parties but we have also been at the wrong damn tea parties and they know we will go again." At his side, Ruby Dee, her purple and red slik presence only a shadow to her husband's huskiness, shakes a close cap of curls affirmatively. There's some smugness, but more sincerity, in their candid view of their reputation. Their show, however, cannot be interpreted as a legitimization of their views.
"I wish it did," says Davis, his sigh as heavy as a smoke stack. "But I think the enemy is much too patient and long-ranged. One couple can get by, five can get by, but when the time comes, all the doors can be closed again. I don't think we have established a permanent beachhead by where we are. We have always kept an eye on the exit door . . . we are prudent and have been black a long time." Dee adds, describing the show, "we have some harsh voices, dishing out some harsh poison."