The Kennedy Center

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee


Ossie Davis
actor, writer, producer, director
(born December 18, 1917,
 in Cogdell, Georgia - died February 4, 2005)

Ruby Dee
actor, writer
(born October 27, 1924 in Cleveland Ohio – died June 11 2014)

They are one of the most revered couples of the American stage, two of the most prolific and fearless artists in American culture. As individuals and as a team they have created profound and lasting work that has touched us all. With courage and tenacity they have thrown open many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America's multicultural humanity. "When Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were honored by the Screen Actors' Guild with its highest honor, the Life Achievement Award, SAG president William Daniels said:   "For more than half a century, they have enriched and transformed American life as brilliant actors, writers, directors, producers, and passionate advocates for social justice, human dignity, and creative excellence."

Ruby Dee has appeared in more than 20 films, and her notable stage appearances include roles in A Raisin in the Sun (she later reprised her performance as Ruth in the 1961 film), and Genet's The Balcony. Her acting has been honored with an Obie Award in 1971 for her performance in Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena, a Drama Desk Award in 1972 for her role in Wedding Band, an Emmy Award for NBC's Decoration Day, and an Ace Award for her ground-braking performance as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. As Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear, she became, in 1965, the first African American woman to play major parts in the American Shakespeare Festival. She has written plays, musicals and several books of poetry, and she turned her own stories and folktales into the 1998 one-woman show, One Good Nerve.

As a playwright, screenwriter, director, producer and actor, Ossie Davis' career spans more than half a century. He has written and directed films (1970's Cotton Comes to Harlem), plays (including 1961's controversial exploration of segregation, Purlie Victorious, and the book for its musical adaptation, Purlie!), and television films (For Us the Living: The Story of Medgar Evers). One of his books for young people, Escape to Freedom, won the Jane Addam's Children's Book Award. On television he has appeared in The Emperor Jones (his TV debut in 1965), "Evening Shade," "The Client," Alex Haley's Queen, "The Defenders," and "Bonanza," and has received Emmy Award nominations for Teacher, Teacher, King, and Miss Evers' Boys. His films include The Cardinal, The Hill, The Scalphunters, Grumpy Old Men, Dr. Dolittle and The Client. On stage he has given memorable performances in No Time for Sergeants, The Wisteria Trees, Green Pastures, Jamaica, Ballad for Bimshire, The Zulu and the Zayda and I'm Not Rappaport.

Before they met, they already had a common goal-to make their mark on the American theater. Davis' ambition was to be a playwright and he set out on foot from his hometown in rural Georgia, to attend Howard University. He moved to New York before graduating and joined Harlem's Rose McClendon Players and studied acting with Lloyd Richards. He made his Broadway debut in 1946 in the title role of Jeb. In the cast was the young Ruby Dee, a graduate of Hunter College, who, like Davis, started her career in Harlem and was now also making her Broadway debut.  Neither Davis nor Dee can remember the moment they met. The play only ran for nine performances and is now long forgotten, but the partnership it produced is a classic. Felicia R. Lee wrote in the New York Times, "Ms. Dee and Mr. Davis remain without peer in an industry not known for nurturing black people, older people, or long marriages."  Their illustrious partnership has been celebrated as national treasures by the Academy of Television Arts and Science with a Silver Circle Award; by the American Theater with an induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame; and by the government of the United States with a National Medal of Arts.

Following their joint stage debut, the pair toured in a production of the American Negro Theatre's Anna Lucasta and married in 1948. They also made their film debuts together in Joseph L. Mankiewicz' acclaimed tale of racial hatred, No Way Out, starring Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark. Since then they have appeared together and separately in more than 50 films, perhaps most effectively in several by Spike Lee: Jungle Fever, Get on the Bus, School Daze, Malcolm X (in which Davis-as he did in real life-delivers the moving eulogy at the funeral of the slain civil rights leader) and Do the Right Thing, about which Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times: "Miss Dee and Mr. Davis are not only figures within the film but, they also seem to preside over it, as if ushering in a new era of black film making."

Their work, in fact, has always explored and celebrated the lessons of black history in the United States, making the couple, over the decades, an inspiration and iconic presence in contemporary African American culture. In 1976, they produced and Davis directed Countdown to Kusini, the first American feature to be shot entirely in Africa by black professionals.  Through their company, Emmalyn Enterprises, they produced the 1986 PBS special "Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum." Also for PBS, they created the 1980-82 series "With Ossie and Ruby," and produced "A Walk Through the Twentieth Century with Bill Moyers" in 1984. Both received the NAACP Image Awards for their 1996 CBS series "Promised Land," and delivered searing performances in Roots: The Next Generation. Their joint autobiography published in 2000, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, recounts their work together, not only in the arts, but also as artists at the forefront of political activism, ranging from their vigorous opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunt to their tireless work on behalf of civil rights, voting rights and equal rights for all. "We need to make the changes, do the revolutions and make things right that will make it easier for our children and grandchildren," says Dee.

 "Intensely committed they are to the idea that art and politics are inseparable. They both firmly believe that the arts have the capacity to make viewers more human and teach them, at least on some level, how to live (Stagebill)." Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have been teaching us how to live all our lives.
Photo of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee