"With Ossie and Ruby" is an all too infrequent exposure to the talents and perspectives of one of the leading couples of the theater, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. In this entertainment magazine-style vehicle, Davis and Dee let their robust acting fly, punctuating their material with warm and satirical views of being black in America.
The premiere on Channel 32 tonight at 7:30 p.m. is the first of a 13-week series, and has many flaws. To explore the question of "Life Is . . .", which is the title of the first show, Davis and Dee have chosen a most contrived introduction. Sitting in a restaurant, they open a fortune cookie containing the phrase "life is," but missing the answer. What follows is a tiresome scene with a fortune teller, Davis playing both the swami and the customer. When the swami asks how they are paying, Davis says, "American Express," and Dee perks up with a whispery, "We didn't leave home without it." This is too obvious for a new public television audience that has been weaned on hokey commerical slapstick, and for the old public television audience, spoiled by more subtle drama.
In a later scene when Dee Wanders through a flower garden, her voice heavy with the lament of a Jamaican woman who has been tricked by her man, the potential for this show is apparent. In her watery eyes and immaculate delivery are all the reasons Dee's character feels misused and imprisoned. It's a universal moment.
A segment about dashed expectations, in which Dee and Davis portray an old farm couple, is daring -- after all, they have been fighting against blacks' always being the hands instead of the brains -- but they include this passage to show that a refined calmness enriches, not cheapens, those old characters.
In another segment, Dee and Davis attend a prayer meeting. Davis, a minister, again addresses the issue, "Life Is . . ." complete with rhymes, struts and choruses. It works because it is fun, not ponderous.
In this first show, singers Della Reese and a newcomer, General McArthur Hambrick, also perform. This is the pattern in the other shows, (produced by KERA-TV, Dallas/Ft. Worth), as Robert and Kevin Hooks, Cleavon Little, Max Roach and Billy Taylor, as well as writers and politicians like Andrew Young and Felipe Luciano, share some of the credits, illustrating Dee and Davis' commitment to their work-scarce brethren in the industry.