Marvel’s latest Netflix series, Luke Cage proved itself worthy of all of the hype when the first season released September 30th of this year. Created by Cheo Hodari Coker, the timely series focuses on superhero Luke Cage (Mike Colter) set in Harlem when Luke tries to rebuild his life and is met with needing to save Harlem.
Thirteen-year-old Darius Kaleb plays the role of Lonnie in the show. Darius got his start on Broadway first in the original cast of Motown: The Musical playing the principle roles of Young Berry Gordy Jr., Young Michael Jackson, and Young Stevie Wonder before starring alongside Denzel Washington in the 2014 Tony Award winning play, A Raisin in the Sun as the character Travis Younger.
“Working on Broadway, it’s live performances so you don’t have a lot of room for error,” Darius explained about how starting so young in such a devoted medium influenced his work ethic. “If you mess up you better make sure it can fit into what you are doing. Everything is live. So practice, practice, practice.”
Darius talked more about how the life of Broadway prepared him. “You’re always making sure the show or your part in the show is as flawless as possible. There are a lot of rehearsals. There are a lot of twelve hour days before opening night and I believe this helps with the work ethic.” He continues sharing that there are a lot of hardships that come with doing Broadway especially so young with school, rehearsals, and eight shows a week, but if you love it, there’s a pay off in the end, “It’s not always easy so either you will learn to love it or you will hate it. Broadway requires a lot of your time. You only have one day off, Mondays. So you are basically working six days a week.”
Being a musician as well, working in those two shows gave him a higher respect and understanding of music, “I come from a musical family on both sides of my family. I have always been surrounded by music my whole life. But I think what Motown did for me was enhance the music appreciation for more of the technical side as to what can be done with the music.”
Growing up and being a fan of music from the 50s and 60s and of multiple genres, working in Motown: The Musical helped him grow more as a music producer while A Raisin in the Sun taught him about a different element; poetry, “It helped me to see that music is storytelling in itself and that we want to tell a story musically that visually that audience can understand. It needs to fit.”
Doing more on camera work recently, Darius says that one of the things he misses about Broadway is performing live, “I have been performing my whole life. I love performing for audiences. The other thing would be my Broadway friends and I going to the park to hang out. There’s this park on West 43rd and all the Broadway kids hung out there either before or after our shows. I guess you could say it was our outlet for remaining normal kids.”
“I am too young right now to do it, but I would love to come back to Motown and do the adult Berry Gordy role. I would kill it,” Darius exclaimed when I asked him if there was a role he’d love to come back to on Broadway. “I was kind of obsessed with that role when I was on Broadway in Motown. I would be backstage reciting the lines and singing all the songs for Berry Gordy and literally picturing myself doing that role. I would love to do Berry Gordy in Motown as an adult. So watch out Brandon Victor Dixon,” he laughed.
Receiving a lot of praise, attention, and excitement recently with successes like Hamilton: An American Musical, Fun Home, and Shuffle Along, so many people, especially young people, are realizing the amazingness that Broadway has to offer. For Darius, the background experience is what stands out to him, “What interest me about the world of theater is me seeing the whole show come together. How you can take someone’s story or writings and bring that to life. For me, it’s how all the pieces of the puzzle—the show—fit together. From the actors to the music, lighting and sound, costumes and props. Everything comes together. Then, I am always fascinated by how the audience responds to that, good or bad.”
Moving on to Luke Cage, Darius shared his initial reaction to getting the role of Lonnie, “When I found out I got the role for Luke Cage it was kind of surreal to me. It was amazing. I didn’t really feel like it was real, to be honest.” Going into the audition, he was praised for his acting but after not hearing back for awhile, he assumed they picked someone else for the part before his mom told him he booked it. “Even when I got to set, I still couldn’t believe it. It was like someone needed to pinch me, it wasn’t until I saw myself on the camera that I was like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ I was ecstatic,” he exclaimed giving thanks to Cheo Hodari Coker for giving him the chance.
Not just being representative of the superhero genre, Luke Cage carries the elements of blaxploitation, western, drama, and action as well. Featuring a predominantly black cast the show touches on race relations, police brutality, gentrification, politics and so many other topics that are not new, but until recently has not been tackled and discussed much in millennial media.
Proving why representation and inclusion in the media are significant, immediately when I ask Darius what blew him away about the show, he says that seeing Luke Cage was the first time he had ever seen a black superhero. Getting more involved with the material (including doing more research on the character and his comics), he realized that making Luke Cage was making something special. “I thought it was very good but when you get to see it on the screen and hear the music, the effects and see all the other actors that were in that scene that you didn’t necessarily tape with that day with,” Darius reflected on shooting the first episode. “Seeing Luke getting shot with the bullets and the bullets flying off of him and all the animation. Seeing the bullet holes in his shirt and all the special effects. Then, the relevancy of issues the show speaks too. Wow! That showed me how special this show was. Luke is a superhero like no other. What other superhero can take bullets?! I realized then, I was making history that was being cemented on screen. History has been made with Luke Cage and Lonnie Wilson.”
“For me, Luke Cage means progression,” he says referring back to Pop’s (Frankie Faison) wise words that drive Luke: “Forward, always.”
Continuing with what Luke Cage means to him, Darius says, “He is a black male and a black superhero so now, as a black boy and a superhero fan, I have a superhero I can identify with. Secondly, he is very empowering. He was falsely accused and went to jail and then due to some unfortunate situations, he ends up with these superpowers that he has the choice of using for bad or good and he chooses to use them for good. He is not power struck or overly aggressive. He gives you fair warning. For me, that’s very important. The world tries to depict all black men as angry and aggressive, especially one with Luke’s background of being jailed. Luke Cage is intelligent, defends his own, takes care of his community and does the right thing. All the things I like to see in a superhero.”
On the show, Lonnie looks to Luke with a high regard the same way that Darius looks at him. Without giving away any spoilers, the character Lonnie also manages to defy racial stereotypes with a mother studying to be a lawyer and him being a devoted student in the chess club. “I would like to see Luke have more of a mentor relationship with Lonnie,” he says about what how he’d want Lonnie to fit into the story if/when Luke Cage gets a season 2. “Since so many kids watch the show, maybe Lonnie’s role could be developed to be a role model for kids in adverse situations in his community of Harlem. Maybe Lonnie could be looked at as a mentor for kids of his generation.”
“We all know so many great people came from Harlem and they didn’t always have the best of circumstances,” Darius references the rich history of Harlem which has been home to the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, Q-Tip, Lena Horne, and Maya Angelou among hundreds of others. “They could show how Lonnie could be an intricate part helping Misty and Luke solve the corruption around Harlem and how he could be Mariah’s downfall while staying on the clean, straight, and narrow roads to making something of himself and serving his community. That would fulfill Pops dream of the neighborhood kids making it. But, my fantasy would be: If the writers somehow had Luke Cage and Lonnie working on some secret mission. Maybe, Lonnie ended up with some sort of superpowers and became a teen superhero with his own show. That would be the ultimate,” he exclaims with a laugh.
The response Darius received for working on the show caught him off guard, he admits, but much is to be said for how much seeing the positive response the show and the portrayal of Lonnie meant to not only him but the potential for what can become of the show. “I am so thankful for the love and all the support. People were blowing up our phones. My family and friends and friends of friends were calling, Facebooking, and Instagramming,” he laughs. “Even strangers were saying how I killed that role. They were saying they were talking to the television and saying, ‘You gonna get it for beating up Lonnie,'” he says referencing what happens to Lonnie in an altercation with a police officer in the second half of the season.
Darius kept him booking the role a secret to his friends and once the show became available for streaming, he was not only met by his friends quoting Lonnie, but he was met with realizing the impact that Lonnie had on youth that watched, ” I guess I was amazed at how many young kids watched and identified with Lonnie. Luke Cage was promoted more as an adult show, but so many young kids have Instagrammed or Facebooked me asking if Lonnie will be getting a bigger role and is he coming back for season 2. Who knew Lonnie was going to be popular? It’s crazy! I was just happy to get the role.”
Next up, you can see Darius in the movie, STEPS, written by Eddie Harris and produced by Shaquille O’Neal starring alongside Eden Duncan-Smith (Annie), Qaasim Middleton (Naked Brothers Band), and Rob Morgan (Stranger Things). Darius describes the movie as a film about redemption, love, recovery, and forgiveness. “It’s a human story,” he explains. “Everyone can identify with something or someone in this film.”
In the film, he plays Omar, a “good kid that’s trying to navigate the complexities of his community and situations in his family and his life that are foreseen and unforeseen to him.”
Darius hopes that the film offers a positive impact on viewers in multiple different ways that connect to the main themes of the movie itself, “I want viewers to take away how character really shape your life. Good or bad. How important it is for kids to have love, support, and guidance in their lives. How that can make the difference between a good outcome or a bad one. Everyone is offered redemption if they want it. Recovery is never shameful. Sometimes in life, we have to let go of things in order for life to move forward. Without forgiveness, we never heal. Finally, love is the ultimate gift.”
While he has some big screen and television projects in the works, he can’t currently talk about them teasing that to instead stay tuned. However, proving himself to be a force to be reckoned with in terms of talent, Darius has an upcoming short film titled The Audition going into pre-production soon that he’ll hold writing, directing, and producing credits for. On the music side of things, he’s hard at work creating music videos, planning concerts, and preparing for the release of his upcoming EP, Go Get It along with its singles, “Hey Girl” and “OOH.”
5 of Darius’ role models:
– My parents, technically, I know that’s not one but my parents have sacrifices so much. The trips back and forth to NY& LA aren’t cheap. They have taught me the value of character, hard work, support, love, investing, rejection and going after your dreams.
– Working with Denzel Washington. Dreams do come true. He gave me some good advice personally and technically (craft wise). I got to study some of his techniques and then actually put them into play.
– I haven’t met him but Dee-1. I don’t consider myself a rapper but he’s one of the best lyrical clean rappers in the music business. He is handling his business. He turned down a deal from major rap label and got an unheard of deal from RCA. He represents musical genius and integrity.
– NFL Giants Receiver, Sterling Shepard. Not a Giants Fan. Cowboys Nation all day! He’s young and paying it forward. He had someone take an interest in him when his father died that shaped his football career and he has been paying it forward ever since. He works with kids to make a difference in their lives. I am a big advocate of “Paying It Forward.”
– BLM Ministries, my church family. I love them. They have supported me since birth. They are an intricate part in keeping me grounded in my faith. I am very active in my church and it’s a place where I am at home. Their love, support, and prayers means so much to me.
(Photo Cred: TBH Entertainment and Marvel Netflix)