Ossie Davis1917-2005Actor, Activist, Director, Playwright
Raiford Chatman Davis was born on December 18, 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia, the oldest of five children born to Laura Cooper and Kince Davis. Friends mistook his mother's rendering of his initials, "R C", as Ossie and thus was born his nickname. A top student in high school, Davis worked for a year after graduation then left home, hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., entered Howard University
and studied drama under the tutelage of drama critic Alain Locke Davis.
In 1939, Ossie Davis happened to hear Marian Anderson sing and speak at the Lincoln Memorial after she was banned from singing at Washington's Constitution Hall. Davis recalled:
I understood fully for the first time, the importance of black song, black music, black arts. I was handed my spiritual assignment that night.
Shortly afterwards,Davis began that assignment in Harlem with the Rose McClendon Players, where he rubbed elbows with some very influential figures including W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. At what point Davis' theatrical voice shared time and thought with his strong, forceful voice for human dignity and social justice is unsure, but regardless of its origins it continued unabated throughout his life. Davis also became enamored with the Young Communist League around this time but with the beginning of World War II, Davis ended that flirtation and joined the Army. He served as a surgical technician in Liberia giving aid to both local inhabitants and wounded troops.
In 1946, Davis made his Broadway debut in Jeb in which he met Ruby Dee, the lady who would become his wife and lifelong partner. This was Dee's stage debut also and neither can remember the moment they met, but over the next half-century they became "an inspiration and iconic presence" in contemporary African American culture. Following Jeb they toured in the American Negro Theatre's production of Anna Lucasta and in 1948, they married. Davis and Dee also made their film debut together in No Way Out, a story of racial hatred also starring Sidney Poitier. Their work in theatre and film, both together and seperately, was recognized by the Screen Actors' Guild with the Life Achievement Award proclaiming:
For more than a half 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.
Davis' work continued on Broadway
for decades highlighted by Purlie Victorious
, which Davis both wrote and starred in and Jamaica
for which Davis won a Tony Award
. He also wrote and directed films, including the first American feature film both produced and filmed entirely in Africa by blacks, Countdown at Kusini
. Instrumental in the black struggle for civil rights, Davis was an intregral part of Dr. Martin Luther King
's crusade in the 60's as well as an ardent supporter of Malcolm X
. His support of both men intended to show that the divide between their philosophies could and should be bridged. Davis' eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X was reprised for his role in Spike Lee
's film Malcolm X
calling him "a prince--our own black shining prince!--who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so."
Ossie Davis was a hero of mine for all he and others born black at the beginning of the 20th century had to endure and overcome in order to succeed. I believe his success on stage and screen was greatly surpassed by his role in life. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said,
His Greatness as a human being went far beyond his excellence as an actor.
I couldn't agree more. Ossie Davis passed away on February 4, 2005 in Miami, Florida, where he was busy filming his latest movie, Retirement.
Ossie Davis on Broadway:
- Feb 21, 1946-Feb 28, 1946......Jeb
- Oct 18, 1948-Oct 23, 1948...... The Leading Lady
- Jan 12, 1949-Jan 15, 1949......The Smile of the World
- Mar 29, 1950-Sep 16, 1950......The Wisteria Trees
- Mar 15, 1951-Apr 21, 1951...... The Green Pastures
- Oct 3, 1951-Mar 22, 1952.........Remains to be Seen
- Feb 3,1953-Feb 7, 1953...........Touchstone
- Oct 31, 1957-Apr 11, 1959........Jamaica
- Mar 11, 1959-Jun 25, 1960.......A raisin in the Sun
- Sep 28, 1961-May 12, 1962......Purlie Victorious
- Nov 10, 1965-Apr 16, 1966.......The Zulu and the Zayda
- Mar 15, 1970-Nov 6, 1971........Purlie
- Dec 27, 1972-Jan 7, 1973........Purlie(Revival)
- Nov 19, 1985-Jan 17, 1988......I'm not Rappaport
- Oct 30, 1988-Ocy 30, 1988.......A Celebration of Paul Robeson
Ossie Davis on Film (Partial Filmography)