News for 6/15/2006

For Ruby Dee, living life is No. 1

At 81, actress stays busy with more than moviemaking

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ruby Dee emerges from behind the curtained French doors of the bedroom in her downtown Ritz-Carlton suite, welcomes her guest with a broad smile and happily announces she's ready to talk.

Oh, how eager she is to have a conversation. She's hungry for any words that equate or evoke memories of the long, in-depth talks she had in her 56-year marriage with Ossie Davis before his death in February 2005.

"Oh, God, we did talk. That's what I so miss about him," the long-time and celebrated stage and screen actress says of her equally admired fellow actor and late husband. "And arguments, all kinds of things like that. We had marvelous arguments."

Dee nestles into a cushioned chair and, for more than 90 minutes, talks about the Atlanta Film Festival and her latest big-screen venture, the Sundance-winning, made-in-New Zealand "No. 2," which screens June 10 and June 11 at the fest, and more much more.

Like racism ("It's in the atmosphere and it drops things on you"). Growing up in Harlem ("There was always some kind of excitement: riots or parades, funerals or gangsters"). Her admiration of hip-hop ("It's a new generation with new cries or new explanations of joy or longing, ambition and struggle"). Life's pursuits ("We still think we can be buried in our Lamborghinis; it's the most ridiculous thing in the world to die rich").

At 81, Dee is forever spry, her eyes and face sparkling when she senses her words connect with her visitor.

A powerful and illuminating force with the Georgia-born Davis in American theater, the couple received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004 along with Elton John, Warren Beatty, soprano Joan Sutherland and film composer John Williams. Dee has often ventured into other aspects of the arts. On television, her TV movies and miniseries include "Their Eyes Were Watching God," "The Stand" and "Decoration Day." Her big-screen films include "A Raisin in the Sun" and Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" and "Do the Right Thing."

In New Zealand writer-director Toa Fraser's "No. 2," Dee plays a Fiji-Kiwi family matriarch who one day commands her grandchildren to prepare a traditional feast at which she will name a successor. The title refers not only to the street address of her home, but to the recipient of her legacy, who will be charged with carrying on the family traditions.

"I liked the story. It was different," Dee says. "It's about people looking for their identity, a lot like African-Americans. I think she's imagining she won't be around for very long, so she's trying to get her grandchildren together so she could give them a sense of who their ancestors were and what the joy of life is. That sort of 'don't forget your roots' thing."

"No. 2" won the Sundance Film Festival's audience award for world cinema. She believes the film illustrates vital life lessons.

"The excitement of life is as much in our differences as those things we come to understand and have in common and agree on," she says. "You can't have an orchestra with all oboes. God never made one kind of anything."

Dee, who lives in New Rochelle, N.Y., in the large house she shared with Davis, made "No. 2" not long after he passed away. And she's continuing to do what she's done since her Broadway debut with Davis in the 1946 play "Jeb" work.

"I am so lucky to pursue those things I feel compelled to get up in the morning for," she says. "I have projects. Ossie used to tell me, 'Ruby, don't tell everything you're doing because it's too confusing.' I'm trying to learn. I have a sheet with a list of things I'm doing. Four years ago, I had about 14 things. I'm down to about eight of them now, because I'm trying to pace it."

There's her solo performance piece based on her own writings and her attempts to collect and possibly package all the episodes from her and Davis' PBS series in the 1980s, "Ossie and Ruby!"

She's finishing the organizing of a collection of Davis' speeches and letters for the book "Life Lit by Some Large Vision," a title taken from a line by W.E.B. Du Bois. It's due in September from Atria.

She also recently received a letter written by her husband that he had sent to a mutual friend.

"Ossie was describing the arts ..." she says, suddenly trailing off, as her mind embraces the memory of important words from her life partner that floated to her only after his death.

For seven long seconds, she remains as still as a windless night, her eyes focused downward and beginning ever so slightly to well with water.

"In it, he talked about the meaning of the arts to him as a black man," she says after looking up. She pauses a few seconds again before repeating his written words.

" 'What is art? Art is love. Art is perspective. Art is struggle.' Those are the things he talked about.

"I understood a lot of things listening to him."

And sometimes it is her own words delivered with passion and the energy of a will to live and work that sustain her now.

"My business is not dying," she says. "That's going to happen. I don't have to deal with that. But even if I'm trailing blood, if I've got an idea I'm going to try to get somewhere to get that idea out. Before the blood stops, you know."

News for 12/31/2005

The following interview appeared in the October 2005 issue of Essence Magazine

News for 5/19/2005

The following article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Black Enterprise Magazine

News for 12/5/2004

Ruby Dee And Ossie Davis: Their Activism Is No Act

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer


They're an ageless couple, products of a world of art and protest that seems long gone now.

To hear Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee tell it, the '40s and '50s were beautiful, a time to accomplish things on both the stage and the picket line.

"I had been profoundly influenced by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes," says Davis.

"I'd come from a background in New York of picketing and protesting," says Dee.

They met in 1946 during rehearsals for a play. Manhattan at that time could feel experimental: a place of lively protests, avant-garde theater, radical little magazines. They married two years later. There were struggles, but they always managed to find work. And those were the days when not many blacks found work in the thea-tuh.

Their careers have embraced stage, film, TV, radio and voice-over narration. There have been many joint appearances. And many other artists who benefited from their writing and producing and have gone on to their own successful careers.

Now comes a grand tribute, as Davis and Dee are being feted this year at the Kennedy Center Honors for their theatrical and film achievements. Only two other married couples have received the Honors jointly -- Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. (There have been other artistic partners who received joint Honors.)

The Kennedy Center refers to them as "a greatly revered couple of stage and screen." But it also acknowledges their work has "thrown open many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America's multicultural humanity."

They were the first couple of the civil rights movement and seemed to be everywhere during the '60s -- in Selma, beside Martin, at Malcolm's funeral.

Recent generations might well know them from Spike Lee's movies or maybe their eclectic PBS series, "With Ossie and Ruby," which was both short-lived (1980-82) and lauded.

Two theater rats. Two leftists.

"I didn't know they'd give it to people like us," says Dee. "Oh, let me hush."

"It's quite a big deal," Davis says, the words rolling up deep and rich.

"I know, I know," she says. "I always thought of it as something you watch on TV."

Brunch of Champions

Davis and Dee arrive early for an interview at Yvonne's, a restaurant on Fifth Avenue here in Pelham. There are linen napkins on the tables, sunshine on the silverware, the velvety voice of Arthur Prysock on the sound system. Other diners are making a fuss, shoulders twisting, hellos ventured. But soon the two are brunching on waffles and fried chicken.

This is why the fussing went on: They're celebrities, and they've endured. On the big screen, he's appeared in, among other films, "The Cardinal" (1963), "A Man Called Adam" (1966), "The Scalphunters" (1968), "Harry and Son" (1984), "Joe Versus the Volcano" (1990), "Doctor Dolittle" (1998) and several Spike Lee movies, including "Do the Right Thing" (1989), "Jungle Fever" (1991) and "She Hate Me" (2004).

Among her films have been "Go, Man, Go!" (1954), "A Raisin in the Sun" (1961), "The Balcony" (1963), "Buck and the Preacher" (1972), "Cat People" (1982), "Just Cause" (1995) and Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever."

A waitress, Sharri Parker, pulls out a tattered postcard photo, circa 1953. It's of Davis and she wants him to sign it. "This was taken by Mr. Carl Van Vetchen," he says of the famed photographer.

"Let me see it," says Dee. "Oh, my. Yes, I remember. You were appearing onstage in New York."

Davis gazes a long while at the photo. Time has flown.

He was born in Cogdell, Ga., in 1917. There was food on the table, but he wanted out. At the time, Howard University was a mecca for bright young minds, particularly in the arts. "I wanted to be in that circle of people who were pulled together by [philosophy professor] Alain Locke," he remembers. "Locke seemed to specialize in locating talent and finding a place for it."

She was born in Cleveland in 1924 but grew up in Harlem. There were piano, dance and voice lessons. "My stepmother wanted to be an actress," she says. Harlem was full of activists. There were rent strikes and race riots. She had one eye on the activists, another on the acting community. She was admitted to Hunter College.

Both say their parents were not learned folk. But they were savvy and noble, honorable and hardworking.

"His father, my father, were role models of different sorts," Dee says. "We learned about the importance of being black. You had to amount to something. It wasn't always Robeson, but the little people who pushed us, sensing that there was more to life than their own experiences. They sacrificed. It was an extraordinary and unconditional love."

In 1939, Georgia accent and all, Davis made his first stage appearance in New York with the Rose McClendon Players. Dee made her first appearance a year later in the city with the American Negro Theatre. The work came intermittently, as it does for all actors.

"My experiences with New York are divided before I went to World War II and when I came back," he says.

He served in the Army with a Negro medical unit that eventually would send him to Liberia. While in the Army, he read plenty of W.E.B. Du Bois and honed his political mind.

"When World War II was over, there was a strong feeling in the country that racism had to be attacked," Davis says. "The artistic community seemed to be leading the way. It wasn't just stories for dramatic purpose, and it wasn't just white folks doing good. It was a series of serious statements made by Americans of what kind of world we would have from here on in. And in that background, there were questions about the Sovet Union and colonization in Africa."

In 1946, they both reached Broadway in "Jeb." The production, staged at the Martin Beck Theater, was about a black soldier home from World War II who has to do battle with the Ku Klux Klan. For Broadway, it was a risky and novel production, with the tragedies of racism right there on the stage. Davis played the lead. "Jeb," for all its good intentions, lasted only a week. But it had set something loose: a fierceness, an aggressiveness in the minds of playwrights and actors. "That," Davis says of the production, "was the kind of theater Ruby and I came into. It was already part of the civil rights struggle."

Dee's first marriage -- to a gentleman who happened to be a midget -- had fallen apart. In New York theatrical circles, Davis was someone being talked about. He was physically big, well-read and confident.

"He had already told me he was a genius," she says.

"It's the truth!" he howls.

Their cackles have a way of melting into one another.

They fell in love. She once gave him an inscribed picture of herself: "Dear Ossie, When I think of you, let there be silence and no writing at all. Ruby." He smiled the country smile when she handed it to him.

They went across the river to New Jersey to marry in 1948.

"We were working," she remembers. "We didn't have the whole day off, did we?"

"I think we had Thursday off," he says.

They took a bus back across the river, back to their apartment.

"The McCarthy years cut so much out from under us," he says.

For a period, they were blacklisted. They survived McCarthyism, though FBI agents trailed them around; they suffered the pain of being out of work, and remained determined to keep raising money for families of lynch victims.

Their politics could be called radical by some standards, constantly challenging the status quo, as they planted their feet on many an occasion to the left of the Democratic Party. Like Robeson, one of their heroes, their astonishing artistic credentials flowed into their political activities.

"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.)

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.

They jointly decided they'd read King's famous letter from jail before the gathering. Then their lungs took over: They sang it. "We got up and let it rip!" he says. "We sung that sucker. It rang."

"We were the 'be there' people," she says of the movement.

Be there: Ruby and Ossie and Adam Clayton Powell and Jackie Robinson. And Martin. And A. Philip Randolph. And maybe Malcolm. And often James Farmer. And sometimes Peter, Paul and Mary. And souls you've never heard of, important, anonymous, gone to history.

They'd all be there, somewhere, anywhere, some fight, some protest.

"They set a high standard for all of us -- as actors and individuals," says Billie Allen, a New York theatrical director who has known the couple for decades and recently directed Dee onstage. "What unifies them is their devotion to the struggle."

Davis befriended Malcolm X during his tensions with the Nation of Islam. "Malcolm would ride out to our house, all by himself, just to talk," he says, touched still that a man of Malcolm's renown would be standing there on the front porch, ringing the doorbell, holding his hat in his hand.

Malcolm died and Martin died and so many others. Who remembers Hilda Simms, that glorious stage actress who died in 1994? Davis and Dee do.

"Hilda was beautiful," he says. "Talented, passionate. But America was not ready for Hilda."

"It was the hardships of being discriminated against," Dee says of the actress, who many black performers hoped would become, like some others, a crossover star.

"There was Ethel, Dorothy, Lena" -- as in Waters, Dandridge and Horne.

They were all on a first-name basis.

Who remembers Canada Lee? One of those actors done in by McCarthyism, he died in 1952, penniless. "There were certain resources," says Davis, "that Robeson had in all departments that were not available to Canada, who paid the price of being bad and black -- with no backup."

They're always reading scripts. He's putting the finishing touches on a couple of plays. She plans to get back onstage next year.

"It's been a wonderful life -- so far," Davis says, turning to his wife. "No pressure now, love."

"Long as you didn't say was," Dee chimes.

And they're shoulder to shoulder again, caught in each other's cackling.