Julius Tennon on the importance of August Wilson, ‘Giving Voice’ and working with wife, Viola Davis

The actor/producer and JuVee productions co-founder says he and Davis may hit the stage together in the future

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It’s almost time for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to debut on Netflix and the highly-anticipated film will likely invite a whole new audience into the world of August Wilson. 

theGrio caught up with Julius Tennon, co-founder of JuVee Productions to discuss Giving Voice, a documentary we consider essential viewing if you really want to understand the power and impact of Wilson’s prolific work. 

Read More: Viola Davis calls Chadwick Boseman ‘my baby’ during virtual preview of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

The project recently debuted on Netflix. The film that follows the legacy of Wilson and his annual monologue competition, where thousands of high school students enter to win their chance perform on Broadway was executive produced by Tennon and his wife, Viola Davis through their JuVee Productions banner, along with John Legend, Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius for their Get Lifted Film Co. 

The synopsis reads:

The powerful film follows the emotional journey of six students as they advance through the high-stakes August Wilson Monologue Competition, an event that highlights the work of one of America’s preeminent playwrights. The national event brings Wilson’s work like Fences and The Piano Lesson to public school students pursuing careers in the performance arts. The students who commit to the demanding and rewarding competition process are encouraged to explore themselves and the world around them through the monologues from Wilson’s century cycle of ten plays focused on the Black experience in America.

“August Wilson is important. He’s one of our foremost playwrights in the country. He’s up there with all the other greats,” says Tennon during our exclusive interview. 

Some of Wilson’s work includes King Hedley II and Fences which ran on Broadway featuring Davis, who won the Tony Award for her starring roles in each. She also starred in Wilson’s Seven Guitars on Broadway and won an Oscar in 2016 for reprising the character of Rose Maxson in the movie version of Fences.

“In terms of who JuVee is and who Viola is, if you think about all the big moments in her career— I didn’t know her in 1997, I didn’t know her when she did Seven Guitars, but she did that and got a Tony nomination for it. Then by 1999, we had just started dating, and then we’re at the Tony Awards and she wins her first Tony for King Hedley II. It was just apropos for us to be a part of this because Wilson’s work has been so important to her career and it was a perfect fit for us to be involved and we jumped on right away.”

Actors Julius Tennon (L) and Viola Davis attend The 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 30, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Turner)

Tennon insists that part of the power of Wilson’s work lies in the way the characters he created represented Black people we all know and love. His 10-play collection also offers opportunities for Black actors of a certain age. 

“There’s a pathology to these characters, of who they are, where they come from, their backgrounds, all of their messiness, all of their kind of craziness. What we see when we’re sitting back and watching is that we see ourselves or we see somebody that’s like somebody we know It’s familiar. That’s the beauty of August Wilson because he digs into these characters and you relate really quickly. These characters are vivid in our minds because we cross their paths on a daily basis,” he explains. “There’s an excitement there for Black actors of a certain age, there’s a wealth of beautiful roles and beautiful work.”

The world will finally get to see some of that beautiful work performed by Chadwick Boseman, Michael Potts, Colman Domingo, and Glynn Turman as they star alongside Davis in the film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play Wilson released in 1982 as part of The Pittsburgh Cycle series. The collection of 10 plays highlights the plight of Black folks over each decade of the 20th century.

Wilson died in 2005 at the age of 60, so fans can only wonder what his take on the new millennium would have been. 

“It would have been incredible to see what that would have been and it would have been a beautiful thing. But, you know, by the time August passed, he had fully flourished and he has left a treasure trove and a legacy that is going to last forever,” says Tennon.

Read More: POWER COUPLE: Viola Davis and husband Julius Tennon snag first-look deal with Amazon

The students we meet in Giving Voice were lucky enough to spend time with Tennon and he made sure to impart some of the wisdom he soaked up during his long career as an actor.

“You have to love this craft. It can’t be about anything else. I always tell young people you have to do it for the love and you have to keep going. It’s like air. You can’t breathe without being creative,” he told them. “You just have to know you’re always on a journey but it’s worthwhile because you love what you are doing. It’s not all or nothing. They’re going to get something out of it either way, whether they become actors or not. You just do the work that you love.” 

Ever since Tennon and Davis founded JuVee Productions ten years ago, it has been an artist-driven enterprise that develops and produces independent film, television, theater, VR, and digital content across all spaces of narrative entertainment. They seek to produce economical yet premium, sophisticated, and character-driven stories with an emphasis on producing narratives from a diverse range of emerging and established voices alike, and Tennon is at the helm.

“Running a company is more than a notion. When you want to do something, you can’t do everything. I have learned to prioritize and I have prioritized this company for the last ten years. I did a little bit on ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ and I played Ron Biles in the Simone Biles Lifetime movie. I have three different roles coming up; not huge roles, but I’ll still get in there and act ever once in a while,” he continues. 

“I may even get back on stage because that’s my true love. Maybe some time down the road me and Viola might do a two-hander stage thing. We have been talking about that. Maybe when things slow down. We feel like we have three years of flourishing because we have all this great content with her leading the charge on some beautiful work to come and after that, she’ll be working less and we may focus on doing something theatrical. I still have a zeal for it and I love it.”

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey Chadwick Boseman thegrio.com
Viola Davis in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’ (Netflix)

With the ongoing racial reckoning taking hold of Hollywood, promising to change the landscape, it seems like other production companies and studios are looking to replicate some of the strides JuVee has made. Tennon says he plans to stay the course.

“I think everything has been a step moving forward, even as we’ve been in our process of the company for 10 years, out of deference for Viola’s career. By now, Viola has now become a global star and as her star has risen and her voice has risen, it has given us more of an opportunity to go to the gatekeepers and bring the kind of projects we think someone with Viola’s talent deserves. Then we start talking about being a voice for the voiceless and bringing these stories that we haven’t seen,” he explains.  

“You don’t wait for folks to do for you what you can do for yourself. I see things opening up, but I also think individually as Black production companies and as artists and those kind of things, you know, you have to step into it, and you have to see what it is that you really want to do, and then do it with the folks who want to do it with you. It’s always hard work. None of this stuff is easy, but I’m always thinking about quality and collaboration and family and trust and integrity.”

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