NEW YORK — What is it like to be perceived from two perspectives?
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee know about that predicament, because they pay dual allegiance to their acting careers and to their position in the black community as standard-bearers in the arts.
"We represent black culture, and proudly, but we don't perceive ourselves as being only black. We are also Americans," Davis said.
"Black peoples' interests have been narrowed for us by white America, to fit into what others think we should be about," added Dee. "But, you know, we are broad in our interests . . . when we get together, we talk about everything from nuclear arms to interior design."
The producing/directing/writing/acting husband-and-wife team return to public television this week as producers and hosts of "Ossie and Ruby," a 12-week, half-hour series of comedies, dramas and mysteries that touch on a wide range of issues. However, unlike the variety/entertainment series they produced and hosted for public television's 1981 and 1982 seasons, this new series cuts across cultural lines to focus on blacks and others outside the mainstream.
"A Letter for Booker T.," the season premiere tonight at 10 on KCET Channel 28, is a historical drama about late 19th-Century jurist Robert Terrell, played by Davis. His activist wife, Mary Church Terrell, is played by Dee.
Scheduled next Wednesday is "Hellfire," about a TV evangelist and a confrontation with "God" in the form of a beautiful woman whose "true" message differs dramatically from the preacher's, especially regarding homosexuality.
In subsequent weeks, the series will deal with unionization, South Africa, black-owned farm foreclosures, retirement and, in a drama starring Dee and actress Tyne Daly of "Cagney & Lacey," the issue of economic disparities in medical care. One coming drama views the American experience through the eyes of both a black GI and a Korean schoolteacher.
"It's always been our desire to explore intercultural connections, to see how alike and how different we are, and how alike we are in our differences," said Dee, adding that "we have always wanted to do human stories--instead of black or white stories--about the various groups that make up the majority in this country, including white minorities.
"But, we have been sort of steered into black and Third World projects."
"After all, it's part of public television's mandate to provide minority programming," said Davis, seated next to his wife of 38 years during an interview at PBS offices here.
The couple said that because there was inadequate funding for original programming for the new series, PBS encouraged them to "broaden our scope" to include other ethnic backgrounds, outsiders and independent film makers.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS provided $900,000 for the series, according to Davis and Dee. However, they said this made possible only four original programs, plus a Martin Luther King Jr. special that they produced for public television last year.
They said that the unsuccessful attempt to find additional corporate funding meant that they had to repackage programs from their previous series and acquire already-existing programs in the marketplace.
"It was a happy accident," Dee said of the need to look beyond the black experience for programming.
"There are a lot of writers, directors and producers who fall outside the white, Anglo mainstream, and this is where we can come in, to provide a place for them to have a shot (on TV)," Davis said.
Davis currently is starring on Broadway with Hal Linden in Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport," about two elderly men, one black and one Jewish, who are forced to confront their similarities rather than their differences.
However, both Davis and Dee acknowledged that there are few good roles in any medium that come their way. Because they have "to fill a whole life," they enthusiastically take on projects that require struggle, such as the current TV series.
"The trap," Davis noted, "is that by broadening, by trying to prove ourselves as artists and to assimilate ourselves into the mainstream culture, we may lose our black identity. We're trying to maintain our precious identity in ways that relate our culture to others."
Pointing out that it's always a matter of "strategy" and "negotiation," Davis said: "We always have to put a black foot forward, then a white foot forward, then a black foot forward, and so on . . . . You have to inch your way through the door, knowing that nobody's going to open it for you."