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Julius Tennon: From TU to Hollywood

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Julius Tennon has a beautiful speaking voice. In seventh grade, his English teacher discovered this during a poetry unit. The following year, Tennon memorized and performed the “I have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. With King’s brave words instilled in him, Tennon successfully pursued his own dream of an acting career. Now, this 1978 TU alumnus is president, alongside his wife, Viola Davis at Juvee Productions, an artist-driven production company.

With a full football scholarship to The University of Tulsa, Tennon prepared himself to step onto the field and the stage. Switching from offense to defense, Tennon joked, “I like hitting guys more than I liked being hit.” Unfortunately, his football career was eclipsed by knee injuries, but Tennon focused on earning his degree and cultivating his acting discipline.

At the time, Tennon was the only African American student in the theater department. “You have to have a certain amount of fearlessness to be in a department where you are the only,” he said. Tackling substantial roles in Othello, Slow Dance on the Killing Ground and The Emperor Jones, Tennon honed his craft, which elevated him to national competitions. David Cook, a retired TU theater professor said, “As an actor, Julius brought maturity and passion to very difficult roles.”

Character development breathes life into a script. At TU, Tennon landed the role of Randall, a brilliant schizophrenic kid in Slow Dance on the Killing Ground. Randall discusses places in New York City, but Tennon having never been there, needed to perform these scenes as if New York City was his stomping ground. Although New York was miles away, the library brought Central Park and Wall Street to Tulsa. “When you read and open a book to learn something, your imagination goes everywhere,” he said. “It felt more organic for me.”

Acting not only broadens cultural understanding, but it also allows Tennon to experience imaginary journeys as someone else. He easily writes 40 pages of character notes, which invent a background for his role. “I become known,” he said. “I feel like I’m embodying this person; I am going in with a history.”

For thirty years, Tennon’s screen credits have been abundant: Friday Night Lights, Lonesome Dove, Fame, Criminal Minds, The Practice and many others including theater productions. Theater is at the heart of Tennon’s acting practice. Without a screen separating the actors from the audience, the play is a shared experienced. “Anything can happen, and that’s the joy of theater for me,” he said. This fall, Tennon will be back on the TV screen. He is featured in the opening episode of season four on How to Get Away with Murder. “Viola and I love to work together; we relish it,” he said.

Seven years ago, it was Viola Davis’s story that led to the formation of Juvee. Hollywood lacked narratives that showcased multi-ethnic culture, and there were not enough roles for Davis. To provide opportunity and access, Juvee produces authentic and unique stories featuring minority voices. “People of color across the globe want to see reflections of themselves,” Tennon explained. Eventually, Juvee expanded into multiple platforms: film, TV, documentaries, digital and virtual reality.

Virtual reality is not a new concept, but virtual reality storytelling is in its infancy. In partnership with Facebook and Here Be Dragons, Juvee is pioneering an entertainment and education project, Operation Othello. Shakespeare’s Othello is set in modern times with a cast of U.S. Navy Seals armed with cellphones and tablets, but the bard’s speech remains intact. In classrooms, students can watch the performance  “in the goggles, and afterward, the teacher can have a learning tool to talk through things the kids didn’t understand,” he explained. Virtual reality is not a customary platform for a smaller company like Juvee, which makes it a global leader in virtual reality narratives.

As a producer, Tennon looks for stories that have an unusual entry point for the audience. Tennon explained, “Nothing is new under the sun, but how do you twist it?” In their latest project, in conjunction with EveryWhere Studios, Juvee will produce a movie based on Rachel Lloyd’s novel, Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World where Girls are not for Sale. Trapped in a sex trafficking ring, Lloyd writes about her struggle to escape. Lloyd founded the Girls Educational & Mentoring Service to support victims of sex trafficking and played an integral role in passing the Safe Harbor Act. Tennon was deeply moved by her story. “These are teenagers who are not mentally and physically developed, but they are out there in the world wanting to survive and someone to love them,” he said.

Tennon has plenty of love to share with seven grandchildren, three children including his seven-year-old daughter Genesis. His partner in life and business, Viola Davis is “the love of my life,” and they recently celebrated 14 years of marriage. Looking forward, Tennon sees no limitations for his company, his wife and his career. Reminiscent of his TU theatre days, Tennon is ready to take the stage and “step boldly into the future.”