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She's Got a Whole Lot of Nerve

In a new one-woman show, Ruby Dee ruminates on living to the fullest, and laughing along the way.

May 16, 1999|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

The husband is 81; the wife is 74. Parents, and grandparents, several times over. In an era boasting a divorce rate of 50%, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in December. If you looked up "family values" in the dictionary, you'd expect to see their picture.

So it is only to be expected, in separate conversations with these two model senior citizens, that talk would soon turn to sex.

Actually, nothing that comes out of the mouths of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, the golden-anniversary couple in question, is anything close to what you'd expect. Despite coming from a generation not noted for sharing its feelings about sex or anything else, in recent years, they've made a career of talking honestly about topics few others will.

First, the performers did it as a team, in a 1998 dual autobiography called "With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together." This guide to making a marriage work details, among other things, how they dealt with the sexual revolution in America by experimenting with an open marriage.

The short version: They gave each other permission to have affairs; they had affairs; they gave it up. "Not because it was wrong, but because it didn't solve the problems," Davis explains. "It immediately replaced them with another set of problems. That other human being has rights as well; there is no free lunch. And then, to cap it off, came AIDS, and closed the door on the reasonableness of being free in sexual association."

And now, Dee is, with the same frankness, telling her story alone, with her one-woman show "My One Good Nerve: A Visit With Ruby Dee," opening next Sunday at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, based on her own collection of essays, short stories, poetry and humor, "My One Good Nerve," first published in 1987 by Chicago's Third World Press and reissued this year by John Wiley & Sons.

As she writes in the book jacket notes, these are "words that laugh, words that weep, words that shout and words so deep and so private they refuse to give their names, even to their lover."

She's not entirely on her own in the venture, however. Husband Davis serves as producer along with veteran regional theater director Woodie King Jr., and it is directed by longtime family friend Charles Nelson Reilly.

The book includes tributes to well-known figures, from James Baldwin to the late rapper Tupac Shakur; humorous fables; a paean to sisterhood entitled "Calling All Women"; and musings on subjects from love to dreams to drug overdose.

Dee says that her and Davis' attempt to redefine marriage was, above all, a decision not to lie. She is committed to telling the truth. "There is part of the piece where I talk about Ossie fairly frankly, and I think it's important that we begin to talk about love and sex and how we feel about each other, celebrate the things that are glorious and deal with the ones that are disquieting," she says. "It brings us closer together. I don't think we can come to a spirituality without that kind of honesty. I like being able to talk about it.

"My children say, 'Oh, Mom, why do you have to talk about when you were a virgin,' or whatever--well, I remember being a child and wanting to know about it. I would find these little things in magazines, and kids would whisper, and I thought, 'We all have the same bits and pieces, the same temptations. Why not just say what it's like?' "

"My One Good Nerve" was at first performed for friends, then at Dee's alma mater, New York's Hunter College, and a year ago off-Broadway, produced by New Federal Theatre at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse. She hopes to develop a national tour but so far has settled for fitting in individual engagements in between other commitments--most recently her turn as 101-year-old Bessie Delany in the CBS television film based on the play "Having Our Say."

Says director Reilly: "I think what's missing today in the theater is words. We've got lots of big musicals and blaring microphones and big finales. . . . Miss Dee is a word-maker; the phrases she puts together take my breath away."

Reilly's favorite part of the book is the poem "Time To," about a carefree 16-year-old who deposits all of her time at Chase Manhattan Bank, to be used when she gets around to it. Too quickly, she learns that she has turned 60 (upped to 70 for the stage version), without ever getting started on the real business of living.

There are also many stories told onstage that don't appear in the book, Reilly says. One is Dee's take on game show host Alex Trebek, on the occasion of finding herself the subject of a final "Jeopardy!" answer that, Reilly says, read something like this: "This actress' career began with a nine-day run, and her marriage is in its 51st year."

The question, of course, was, "Who is Ruby Dee?"

Dee says she's still trying to figure that one out.


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