Purlie Victorious, pr., pb. 1961, revised pb. 1970 (as Purlie; musical; with Philip Rose, Peter Udell, and Gary Geld)
Curtain Call, Mr. Aldridge, Sir, pb. 1970 (in The Black Teacher and the Dramatic Arts; William R. Reardon and Thomas D. Pawley, editors)
Escape to Freedom: A Play About Young Frederick Douglass, pb. 1976
Langston, pb. 1982
A Last Dance for Sybil, pr. 2002
Just Like Martin, 1992
With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, 1998 (with Ruby Dee)
Gone Are the Days, 1963 (adaptation of Purlie Victorious)
Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1970 (with Arnold Perl)
“The Wonderful World of Law and Order,” in Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States, 1966 (Herbert Hill, editor)
Ossie Davis grew up in rural Georgia at a time when racism prevailed and segregation was the law of the land, and this experience has had a strong influence on all Davis’s work. His father, Kince Charles Davis, had to fight hard for his job on the railroad simply because of his color. The family moved about a good deal, so young Ossie went to live with his grandparents in Waycroft, Georgia, when he reached school age. His parents settled there when he was ten.
Although Kince was almost illiterate, he put great emphasis on education, and his son, an outstanding student, graduated from Center High School in 1935. Even as a teenager, Davis showed interest in a theatrical career, acting in school plays and writing a play that was produced at the high school.
He then went to live with a relative in Washington, D.C., so that he could attend Howard University, where he came under the influence of Alain Locke, an outstanding black scholar and theater critic. For his first year, Davis had a government scholarship which required that he work in the library. When the scholarship ended, he got a job in a commercial laundry, where his employer, Benjamin Singer, was so impressed by Davis that he offered the young man money above his wages to be used for tuition. Davis remained at Howard until 1938, when he asked Locke for a recommendation to Dick Campbell and Muriel Rahn, who headed a black theatrical group in New York, the Rose McClendon Players.
Once in Harlem, the young man learned all about theatrical production in the evenings, supporting himself by working during the day in the garment trade. All seemed to be going well; then came Pearl Harbor, and Davis enlisted and served with the 41st Engineers, an all-black battalion. (The armed forces were not desegregated until after World War II.) Trained as a surgical technician, he was sent to Liberia for a tour of twenty-two months. The young soldier was painfully aware of the segregation in the army itself and then experienced Jim Crowism after his transfer to a base in Missouri. White civilians outside the base were less than cordial to the black servicemen.
Returning to civilian life, Davis felt that his career was stalemated until he received an invitation to return to New York for a role in Robert Ardrey’s play Jeb, the story of a highly decorated African American veteran who is denied a job in his hometown in Louisiana because of his race. The play was not a success, but Davis reaped several rewards: He met his future wife, Ruby Dee, and he was recognized as a competent professional actor. The following year he and Ruby appeared in Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta, which was a hit, and his career seemed assured.
At this point Davis became involved in civil rights activities when he organized a benefit for two black servicemen and their female companions who had been randomly killed in Monroe, Georgia. He persuaded prominent liberals, both black and white, to appear and raise funds for the bereaved families.
On December 9, 1948, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were married, combining their theatrical careers with a home life that produced three children. When Dee got a role in Arnold Perl’s The World of Sholem Aleichem, she and Davis joined others in the cast doing readings of Jewish poetry and stories in synagogues and clubs. The success of these shows gave them the idea of presenting African American literary material in black clubs and churches.
These presentations, along with many roles onstage and in films, gave the couple a comfortable living, but Davis was still determined to write a full-length play about the black experience. When he realized that this could be done effectively by taking a satirical approach, he began work on Purlie Victorious, which opened on Broadway on September 28, 1961. With the couple in leading roles, the play ran for more than seven months. In 1963 it was made into a film, Gone Are the Days. Next came the musical Purlie, which garnered Tony Awards for Cleavon Little and Melba Moore as best actor and actress in a musical, 1970.
Using the comic mode to picture a bigoted southerner, Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, and his son, Charlie, a liberal white man, Davis deals effectively with all the clichés surrounding segregation. In the epilogue, the victorious Reverend Purlie, officiating at the funeral of Cotchipee, says that Davis wants to say to all African Americans: “Be loyal to yourselves . . . and do what you can for the white folks.”
Other plays by Davis, such as Escape to Freedom, have more educational than dramatic appeal. His novel, Just Like Martin, written for young adults, is an eloquent plea for the nonviolence preached by Martin Luther King, Jr. As an activist, Davis spoke at the funerals of both Malcolm X and King, and he has continued to use his talents and influence to improve the position of African Americans within the profession and in society as a whole.