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Judith Raiford

TU film, music alumna gets a big break at Red Clay Studios

Madison Kenya (BA ’21)

It is no secret that Oklahoma’s film scene is gradually expanding into something incredible. In turn, doors are opening for students and alumni to become part of the magic of the film industry.

Madison Kenya, for instance, graduated from The University of Tulsa with her bachelor’s degree in both music and film studies in 2021. Now, Kenya is the executive assistant for the CEO and founder of Red Clay Studios, Cassidy Lunnen. The film, television and commercial production company opened its doors in 2021 right here in Tulsa.

There are many hidden perks to living in a thriving yet smaller city. The arts scene has blossomed in recent years, bringing people from all over the map to express their unique creativity in impactful ways. As a result, making meaningful connections has become easier than some might expect. However, to make these connections, one must be driven by a desire to succeed. Kenya fits the bill perfectly.

While Kenya was finishing up her degree, she found herself applying for highly competitive Los Angeles-based internships but often had trouble getting past the application process for many of them. However, her part-time pet-sitting job soon provided more than some extra cash. “One of my clients happened to know and put me in touch with Cassidy,” Kenya stated. The pair met at a coffee shop for an informal interview and by the end of the conversation, not only did Kenya have an internship at Red Clay Studios, but she was also going to travel to Los Angeles to work on a Marvel commercial for Disney Theme Parks.

Executive duty

Crew coffee run

After interning at Red Clay Studios for a few months, Kenya was offered a full-time staff position as operations coordinator in August 2021 and became Cassidy’s executive assistant in January 2022. Though her responsibilities vary widely, each and every one of them is incredibly important to the productivity of the film studio.

Kenya recruits and supervises new interns; reviews casting tapes and makes recommendations; codes credit card statements and manages daily office operations; organizes script, editorial, sound, color and music notes; mails documents and hard drives; and creates agendas for Oklahoma Motion Picture Alliance (OKMPA) board meetings. She also books travel, grabs lunch and coffee for Lunnen and the crew and schedules meetings.

“The amazing thing about my job is that I get to see the full scope of production, including development, production, post-production and delivery,” Kenya said. So far, her experience has given her confidence. Being surrounded by encouraging company has certainly helped: “I’ve been embraced by many of the creators and artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”

Kenya has also learned valuable lessons at Red Clay Studios. Her advice to those thinking about finding a career in film is solid: “A strong work ethic is key to striving in this industry. Additionally, the industry is based on respect. It is something you must earn and give. Lastly, you should socialize even when you don’t want to. You never know what connections you might make or whom you might meet.”

Projects of pride

Kenya as a background performer on the set of “The Kiss List”

The first project Kenya ever worked on was Avengers: Quantum Encounter, a dinner show that plays on the Disney Cruise Line. The production featured an amazing cast including big names such as Anthony Mackie, Brie Larson and Paul Rudd. “It was really exciting to see everything come together. And, being my first project, it will always have a special place in my heart,” she said.

Kenya’s most fulfilling project was the BMX Gala Fundraiser Specs, for which Red Clay Studios made two different shorts highlighting the BMX Foundation’s STEM educational programming. “We were able to film and interview kids in the RISE program, which is a mentorship and education program serving underprivileged youth in Tulsa,” Kenya stated. Red Clay Studios donated their time and resources to create the shorts, which were used to aid in fundraising for the foundation’s programs. “This was one of the most inspiring projects I’ve worked on so far,” she said.

As far as favorite projects go, Kenya reported that her time on the set of Sick Girl, an upcoming film starring the Vampire Diaries sweetheart Nina Dobrev, was incredibly rewarding and fun. “The film is a great concept with witty dialogue, beautiful production design and cinematography and a very talented cast,” said Kenya, who advises readers to watch for the release of the film later this year.

There are several works currently in development at Red Clay Studios that Kenya is eager to explore. There is the possibility of a second season for the series A Thousand Tomorrows, which premiered Feb. 24 on Pure Flix and was filmed mostly in the Tulsa area. “Right now, we’re leaning into inspirational stories and have some great things on the horizon,” Kenya said.

Where it all began

Left to right: Kenya, Lunnen and film producer Emily Mathason

Kenya’s post-graduate success is due in part to the profound education she received from her TU professors and their enlightening courses. She also reports that the university gave her a wonderful foundation for film: “I was introduced to new creative concepts, and I gained a greater understanding of all of the facets of the industry.”

Additionally, Kenya expressed her gratitude to those who helped make her TU experience so great: “I would like to thank Professors Kim Childs and Richard Wagner for making rehearsals so fun and engaging,” she said, “and I would also like to thank Professors Judith Raiford and Diane Bucchianeri for teaching me to find new approaches to learning. Lastly, I would like to thank Professors Joseph Rivers, Jennifer Jones and Jeff Van Hanken for instilling in me the importance of story in film.”

In hindsight, Kenya finds herself highly appreciative of TU’s learning environment: “The atmosphere at TU is one that lends itself to growth and exploration.”

Do you want to be a part of Oklahoma’s film renaissance? Check out TU’s Department of Film Studies to get started on the career of a lifetime.

Study abroad in Ghana

Many students use summer as a break from studying, turning instead to work or internships and, if they’re able, relaxing. One University of Tulsa student who chose a different path this year was music major Olivia Davis. Between her junior and senior year, this adventurous soul packed her suitcase and headed to the University of Ghana, where she enrolled in two intensive courses.

woman with long black hair crouching near a rock formation
Olivia Davis at Shai Hills Resource Reserve

Davis’s time in West Africa was made possible by a Frederick Douglass Summer Scholars Grant, which is awarded to qualified students who applied for but were not chosen for the Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship. Recipients are given funding to support their participation in a CIEE study-abroad program. In Davis’s case, she opted for Summer Ghanaian Studies.

“I chose to study in Ghana because I find that a lot of courses centered on African and African American history are difficult (at least for me) to be fully immersed in the material while studying at a predominantly white institution,” said Davis. “I wanted to be able to go to the source to learn about my history and fully experience the richness of Ghanaian culture.”

History, language and travel

Between arriving on June 13 and departing on July 12, Davis took a course on the Atlantic slave trade and another on Twi, one of the many languages spoken in Ghana. In addition to her studies, Davis volunteered with an organization called Play and Learn (PAL), serving as a mentor and tutor for a group of middle- and high-school students in reading comprehension, dictation and essay writing.

woman with long black hair holding a large orange-yellow cocoa pod
Olivia Davis at Tetteh Quarshie Cocoa Farm

While helping at PAL, Davis was struck by the fact the material the children were reading lacked cultural and ethnographic representation and diversity. This stood out to Davis, in part, due to her work at Fulton Street Books and Coffee, located in Tulsa’s Heights neighborhood, whose mission is to bridge the gap between representation and diversity in literature by highlighting books written by and for people of color. “As a Black woman,” Davis commented, “I know that it makes quite an impact to read, learn and be surrounded by those that look like me.”

For Davis, a major benefit of being physically present in Ghana was the ability to go with other study abroad students to sites related to the material they covered in class. These places included the W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre, the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum (Nkrumah was Ghana’s first president) and Black Star (Independence) Square. Davis and her fellow students even had the opportunity to try haggling in Twi with vendors at the Accra art market: “Twi became easier once I used the language outside of the classroom. I loved surprising Ghanaians by speaking Twi in conversations!”

Among all the many fascinating excursions, Davis’s trip to the former slave trade embarkation points of Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle was, she said, “the most moving and unforgettable part of the program. Being able to physically step into spaces that harbor such an unjust, sinister history was a lot more overwhelming than I had expected.” Despite the emotional impact of these blood-soaked sites, “I found that it was necessary to go there to understand the reality of the conditions. By stepping into the dungeons and walking through the castles, I was able to experience the conditions in real time and to relate what I read about in my coursework directly to an experience I was able to see and feel.”

Intangible rewards

Beyond the new knowledge her courses provided and the physical immediacy of field trips, Davis’s time abroad illuminated for her several intangible benefits: “Ghana is a very peaceful country and there is a sense of community that is simply not found in America. I think of places like the markets we’d go to and the hospitable and friendly nature of everyone, despite me being an outsider.”

four people seated around an outdoor picnic table in a tropical setting
Left to right: Mitch Deckard, University of Texas at Austin; Destiny Shippy, Woffard College; Leo Kim, Occidental College; Olivia Davis, University of Tulsa. At One Africa Resort in Elmina

Davis was surprised and impressed by how welcoming everyone in Ghana was, “even though each of us came from very different backgrounds and demographics. We were seen as people wanting to learn more about their culture and way of life. I never felt judged and looked at differently for being American.”

Her summer experience in Africa also brought home to Davis “the value of immersive education and the need for community in education and life.” Living and learning in Ghana, she said, “taught me how to be more intentional with my relationships towards others. I deepened my sense of the impact even the simplest of conversations can have on an individual, and my time abroad helped me to solidify the need for more meaningful and intentional practices in my own life despite cultural or language barriers.”

Now back home in Tulsa, this semester Davis is enrolled in a history course entitled “Africans in the Americas from Slavery to Freedom.” She is looking forward to sharing what she learned in the classroom at the University of Ghana and in the field at the sites she visited.

Diversity in musicianship

woman smiling while laying down on the floor of a long wooden suspension bridge
Olivia Davis at Legon Botanical Gardens, Accra

Davis’s fascination with global languages, cultures and histories plays out, too, when she looks at life after graduation. “I hope to explore ethnomusicology further and be able to research the importance of music in non-Western cultures,” she remarked. “Within the music field, I’ve found there is often an erasure of indigenous music and music composed by people of color. I aspire to research, create and curate music and allow first-story narratives of music into spaces that celebrate and educate listeners about diversity in musicianship.”

Associate Professor of Music in Voice Judith Raiford is one of the many at TU who has no doubt that Davis will achieve her lofty ambitions. “I first met Olivia after her impressive performance of Cinderella in the musical Into the Woods at Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences,” Raiford recounted. “I’ve been privileged to be her voice teacher at TU ever since and have been continually amazed and inspired by her musical growth and intellectual curiosity.

“As Olivia was determined to use her music major to explore her interests in the African American experience, we began to seek out new repertoire together-embracing a journey of discovery that has enriched my own awareness and understanding of the African-American culture and its history. With Olivia’s gentle soul and her unwavering commitment to advocating for underrepresented peoples in underprivileged communities, I look forward to seeing how she impacts the world with her passion and grace.”

If Olivia Davis’s expansion of mind and spirit in Ghana inspires you, be sure to check in with TU’s Center for Global Engagement.