This year's Kennedy Center Honors have attracted new attention to the lives and careers of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, one of the most revered couples of the American stage. The two were among the recipients of the prestigious awards earlier this month at a star-studded ceremony in Washington that saluted six individuals for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.
Affection for Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee goes beyond their artistic abilities. For more than five decades, the couple has been at the forefront of social change and eyewitnesses to some of the most important events in civil rights history.
"Ruby and Ossie, when I grow up, I want to be just like you," said rap star Sean "P. Diddy" Combs as he introduced Mr. Davis and Ms. Dee at the 27th annual Kennedy Center Honors Awards.
The couple met when they were cast opposite one another on a Broadway stage in 1946. They later married and have been virtually inseparable ever since. Whether performing as a team or individually, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have been recognized for raising the standard of theatrical excellence -- not only as actors, but as writers, producers and directors as well. Ms. Dee first gained recognition for her appearance in the groundbreaking 1959 drama, A Raisin in the Sun. Ossie Davis began his career as an actor and playwright, receiving critical acclaim for his 1961 play, Purlie Victorious, in which he and his wife both performed.
In an interview at the University of Indiana in 2002, Ossie Davis spoke about the possibility of a Black National Theater. "As long as there is a story about us that we need to tell each other, particularly the stories that nobody else is telling," he said, "there will be a need for black theater." Beyond that, he added, "as long as there's a need for black theater, there will be a need for somebody to supply it."
Over the years Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have demonstrated how art and politics often go hand in hand. Mr. Davis was present at the groundbreaking concert by singer Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after she had been denied admission to Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin. Mr. Davis and Ms. Dee's outspokenness on behalf of civil rights sometimes cost them jobs. The couple was even blacklisted in the 1950s by the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee for being suspected Communist sympathizers.
At the Kennedy Center tribute, Ruby Dee reflected on just how far they both had come. "It makes me feel something marvelous about the country that no matter what grievances we may have, this is a country that respects its rebels, too," she said. Secretary of State Colin Powell praised them at a State Department dinner prior to the awards ceremony. "Their work, artistic and civic," he said, "has been dedicated to ensuring that our country delivers on the American dream." Later, the couple was feted along with the other award recipients at a White House reception. The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast on American television on December 21.