April 19, 2002
Story by Ken Woodley of the Farmville Herald – – April 19, 2002
WASHINGTON, DC-There are moments when Tony Cosby tells an audience that he has been to the mountaintop and has seen the promised land and, unknown to those listening, literally feels Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking the words coming out of his mouth.
Cosby, who will portray Dr. King during a free public program at the R. R. Moton Museum on Tuesday night at 7 p.m., said the slain civil rights leader “comes in whenever he needs to come in and do it himself.”
Assassinated on the evening of April 4, 1968, Dr. King nevertheless lives on through the continued impact of his words and deeds, including re-enactments like those performed by Cosby, a Richmond native and founder and director of Theatre & Company in Richmond.
“I feel very close to him,” said Cosby during a telephone interview from a Washington, DC office.
Cosby once took a bus trip to Atlanta and, standing by Dr. King’s tomb, began to cry.
“I felt some kind of connection, with him lying there in that tomb. I feel real close to him. I haven’t figured out why. I can be in a pulpit and something takes over,” he said, searching for words. “It’s almost like I’m not even talking, like he has come in.”
Cosby has performed in schools and churches and quite often, when he finds himself delivering Dr. King’s last speech, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop,” he will look out the window of that church and see rain falling.
So often it has rained on nights when he delivers that speech, just as it rained on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee when Dr. King uttered those words for the first and final time.
And that is when Cosby, who never expected to be an actor and never dreamed he’d ever tell anyone he has a dream, will often feel the presence of the civil rights leader.
In that Memphis speech, Cosby will say, Dr. King was “really in contact with the spirit.”
Cosby began putting himself in contact with the spirit of Dr. King’s speeches quite unexpectedly. Holding a degree in speech and performing arts from Bowie State, Cosby said he was on a football scholarship and never expected to earn his living in front of an audience expecting to be entertained. Theater was something he enjoyed but that, so he thought, was that.
Until a pastor invited him to recite one of Dr. King’s speeches as part of a birthday remembrance.
“At the time, I was going to read it. Then I through I’d go into character with it. I did the morning service and I did the speech but did it in his voice,” said Cosby of that initial performance in 1979.
Cosby said he listened to “loads and loads and loads of tapes and lucked intosounding like him. And the invitations started pouring in.”
Cosby, who has appeared on the stage and in films directed by Tim Reid and Debbie Allen has stood and watched the tears flow from the eyes of those listening to him portray Dr. King.
“The challenge I have is to find out how effective the man’s words were to people and crowds,” he said. “You see people crying.”
The most rewarding moments come when his performance connects with older audiences. “People who were in the movement, who may have marched with King, who lived through a lot of that stuff, “he said. “To see that they really appreciate you coming.”
Cosby has King’s speeches completely memorized now, no referring to text, freeing his eyes to watch the faces of his audience and see the words roll down the cheeks of those sitting before him.
“To see what it’s doing to people,” he said. When he first began he always referred to the text, because getting the words right was so important to him, and never saw the impact unfold.
Now the words are part of him. And he sees the impact. Feels it.
“The experience has become more spiritual, more religious now,” he said.
And it crosses generations.
“Older people thank you and tell you stories. It trips me out. So many people have a story (related to Dr. King). I get more strength talking to people after shows,” Cosby said. “It gives me the motivation to go somewhere else (and perform).”
The young also respond.
“Little kids thing you’re Dr. King,” he said, “or that you know Dr. King.”
The connection is immediate and real.
“I use theater,” he said, “and theater is effective if you get it right.”
Not every reaction has been pleasant, however. Cosby has felt humanity’s animal skinned voice, as well, clawing at him from a telephone receiver.
“I’ve gotten phone calls. People have called and made all kinds of negative comments,” he said. Comments about Dr. King and questions, pointed questions about why Cosby was keeping the memory of such a man alive.
“I took a break,” Cosby said, the negativism forcing him to regroup and wonder about things. “I didn’t know if I was on the right track. I didn’t know if things might be getting violent or if folks were seeing it the wrong way.”
The hiatus was nothing more than that, a temporary blank space which Cosby filled in with thoughts that led him back into pulpits and in front of lecterns, bringing words, and a man’s mission, to life.
Cosby has read every book on Dr. King and the civil rights movement that he can find, studied tapes, observed nuances and subtleties, small by defining characteristics.
“The more I studied, the more it fascinated me,” Cosby said, who felt astonishment that Dr. King, a man Cosby believes could have been a university president, gave his entire life, in the manner he gave it, to the civil rights movement. “He was smart enough…but he was caught up in the movement.”
And finally caught up in the cross-hairs of an assassin’s rifle.
But his words, and their meaning, will come to life Tuesday night in Farmville.
One way, or another.
It will be Tony Cosby, or it may be one of those nights Cosby feels as if someone else is doing the talking.
Still having a dream