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A Richmond Theater Veteran Honors Martin Luther King Jr. and Gil Scott Heron With New Play

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Tony Cosby was taught that an audience will believe whatever you believe by an acting teacher at Bowie State College.

After 36 years of nailing every cadence and inflection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, Cosby is a believer. From the steps of Richmond’s City Hall to the Henrico Theatre to churches in town, the actor has made believers out of his audiences.

To achieve the proper state of mind, he begins to prepare before leaving home, first putting on a black suit and reading the Bible. When he’s performing at a church, he takes someone with him, pauses to confer with the minister, and only then does he approach the pulpit to speak King’s words. Whether the “I Have a Dream” speech, the Memphis speech delivered just before he died or the “Drum Major” speech, Cosby knows them all by heart.

His latest project, the “King Holiday Happening,” will incorporate “The Porch,” a short play he’s written along with a musical tribute to Gil Scott Heron, whose music and spoken word presaged the topics discussed by the five black men passing time on the porch.

“You listen to his words and it’s all still happening today,” Cosby says of the play, which was inspired by years of porch conversations with his neighbors, whom he describes as “a bunch of old black guys. I told them I was going to start writing down what we talked about and I did.”

Topics ranged from community accountability and the danger of staying silent when they see something wrong to putting down guns and trying to find better ways to resolve divisive issues. “We’re tired of going to funerals,” he says. “Everyone is weighed down by the community-wide stress of all this.”

During the course of the play, the five characters discuss what he calls “porch stuff” — aging issues, the pros and cons of the Mega Bus, meditation and women, allowing some characters to sing songs such as “Glory” from “Selma” and John Legend’s “Ordinary People,” while Cosby gets to insert bits of King’s rhetoric in his distinctive delivery.

He says he didn’t grasp the magic of delivering the “Dream” speech until he did it for a black congregation, many of whom cried while he spoke the familiar words. A few years later, an older man came to his day job carrying a beat-up tape recorder and pushed the play button. It was Cosby, but the man insisted it sounded exactly like King.

It’s for that reason that many people will fill the seats in the Henrico Recreation Center, a fact not lost on Cosby.

“I remember when we were young, we used to go to Buckroe Beach and wonder why there had to be a wall between us and the white folks at the beach,” he says. “These days, the community’s got to get to a point where we all say we’re sick of guns and violence. I’m not afraid to speak up.” S

“King Holiday Happening” takes place at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, at Henrico Recreation Center, 1440 Laburnum Ave. $20.

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