Atlanta has become recognized as a major international film making mecca, but nowadays 13-year-old Jahi Di’Allo Winston has emerged as arguably the city’s youngest, hottest and most highly regarded actor.
Winston, the son of Atlanta’s popular preacher Pastor Darryl Winston, jumpstarted his career with a “spectacular” 17-month stint on Broadway in the coveted role of Young Simba in the long-running theatrical classic The Lion King, which opened Nov. 13, 1997 on Broadway and has been seen by 50 million people worldwide. Jahi has become a highly sought-after; up-and-coming national TV and movie star ever since.
“When I got the part, instantly my life changed,” the young Winston recalls about his role as Young Simba.“I’d already known that I could act and it was something I could do. The opportunity came sooner than I anticipated. I had to check within myself to see if I was ready.”
Jahi beat out 900 other contestants for that coveted role. He was on Broadway for 17 months. The Lion King is so popular, it has been performed on Broadway for nearly 20 years. It is the Broadway Theater’s third longest running show in its iconic history. It launched Jahi Winston’s acting career.
A lively stage adaptation of the Academy Award-winning 1994 Disney film, The Lion King is the story of a young lion prince living in the flourishing African Pride Lands. Born into the Royal family, precocious cub Simba spends his days exploring the sprawling savanna grasslands and idolizing his kingly father, Mufasa, while youthfully shirking the responsibility his position in life requires. A vibrant and exciting tale from the great creatives at Disney, The Lion King is a story of love and redemption.
“The experience was once in a lifetime,” Jahi continues. “It will always be very special to me. I didn’t realize how big it would be doing that show for the amount of time that I did it and for a show of that caliber. It is one of the longest running shows in history. I didn’t realize how big a deal it was acting on Broadway. It catapulted my career. Lion King was a great platform, and a dream come true.”
Jahi’s father, Rev. Darryl Winston, has been the popular and prominent pastor of Greater Works Ministries for 20 years in Atlanta. His wife Juakena Winston, who is also a minister, has formed All The Up Entertainment that serves as Jahi's management team giving oversight to his burgeoning career
“My youngest son is the embodiment of what we teach at our church,” he says. “We believe we’ve been called to go into what’s often referred to as the Seven Mountains of Influence – the arts, entertainment, the political arena, economics, religion, economics and business – and that the church must have influence beyond brick and mortar. Growing up in the church, Jahi has always exhibited grace and charisma. He is extremely gifted.”
As a result, Winston has now become a big deal kid actor on the national stage. It’s been recently announced that Jahi's latest project finds him as a lead actor in the upcoming Screen Gems’ upcoming thriller Proud Mary, starring Taraji P. Henson as hit woman Mary Goodwin. Danny Glover (Almost Christmas) has also officially joined the film. It promises to be a Blockbuster! Jahi is destined to garner national exposure and acclaim.
Adding to that growing body of on-camera TV work and notable cinematic roles, Jahi, also recently completed an ABC pilot called Libby and Malcolm.
“It’s a great story; it’s a political comedy” Jahi opines. “It’s not a spin-off of “Black-ish” but a similar format. I’m really excited about that, it will definitely be interesting for [viewers].
“My son, I believe, is a bright star shining in the universe, and his illuminating presence will lead many out of darkness,” prophesizes Pastor Winston. “I’m just grateful that God chose my wife and I as a vessel to bring to the earth such a gift as my son.”
Still, the humble Jahi, refuses to see himself as what he truly is—a young movie and television star talent – though others do.
“I don’t even think of myself as anybody’s movie star,” he tells this reporter in an exclusive interview. “I didn’t get into this business to be a movie star; I got into this business to do what I love. Other people can see me like that if they want to, and I’m sure some people do see me that way. I don’t really consider myself to be a movie star.”
Alveda King is a Republican activist, author, former Georgia state representative, and the niece of the revered late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She is also a good friend of the Winston family.
"Atlanta is a place that births dreams, and this is Jahi's destiny," says Elder King. "The fact that he has come up in the church is not an accident. It is fascinating that he can act and sing. He is like a bright star; he has brightness in his personality. I know him quite well. I've watched his growth and development, and this success is very heartwarming."
According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the Georgia film industry currently ranks third in the nation behind California and New York, with nearly 3,000 motion-picture and television industry businesses, including 1,957 production-related companies. With a direct spend of $2.02 billion, the economic impact was more than $7 billion in FY16 — up from $244 million just nine years ago. There are about 25,000 Georgians who are in the film and television production business and another 30,000 who are indirectly related.
Ambassador Andrew Young, a civil rights icon, reportedly gave Jahi some sagacious advice when he was tapped to go to Broadway. Winston says Young invited the young actor to his home and told him to “use this platform; take every opportunity you get to perform in the arts to enhance and enrich and better life for somebody else.”
The Baptist church and Christian values have always been central to Jahi’s life and learning. His father says he is a gifted child of God.
“My earliest recollection of his creativity was when we did an Easter play and one of the children didn’t show up,” Rev Winston recalls. “Jahi improvised and did his role and the other child’s role as well. And, extemporaneously took it beyond what was in the script. He shut it down, and turned in just a stellar performance. The entire church was on their feet.
“Jahi was six years old at the time,” Rev. Winston continues. Jahi was also writing songs at that tender age. That’s when Rev. Winston clearly recognized his son’s extraordinary natural talents.
“He was in a fifth grade school play and stole the show,” Rev. Winston fondly remembers. “Everybody in that diverse audience were marveling at his gift and his natural abilities to woo a crowd. “Then we got notification in 2014 that Disney was auditioning in Atlanta for Young Simba in The Lion King.”
What followed was a stand-out 2017 performance when he successfully scored a guest role on the highly acclaimed show The New Edition Story. Critics say Jahi nailed the part. It was Jahi’s first film experience and his introduction to a national audience.
“It was a fantastic opportunity,” he says. “New Edition means a lot to a lot of people, and being a part of something like that was really amazing. The cast and the crew were like my family. And, all the love and appreciation was really cool. It was a once in a lifetime experience. I loved it.”
That jump-started Jahi’s blossoming movie career. Now he has a feature role alongside comedian/actor Kevin Hart in the soon-to-be-released drama/comedy called Untouchable.
“I’m playing Kevin Hart’s son,” Jahi reveals during an exclusive March 28th interview in Atlanta with this reporter. “In the movie, it becomes one of the most important stories. It is a story about trust without redemption, and it will show a different side of Kevin, and it will be really new to me too, so I am really excited about it.”
Jahi adds exuberantly, “It is about this man who gets out of prison, and his parole officer is kind of giving him the business. So, he finds this man, Philip, who was handicapped in a hang-gliding accident, and Dell, played by Kevin, takes on the role of being Phillip’s caretaker. They end up becoming best friends.”
When asked, what it is it like being back in Atlanta, and how his friends and family deal with him now that he is has garnered a national spotlight, and is on track to become a major movie star, Jahi says: “I like to think people don’t see me any different than who I was before I started my career. A lot of my time is spent around my family and that really keeps me grounded. They don’t really see me as being a big-time movies star. So. It’s all good.”
Jahi is not a one-dimensional artist. He sings, he acts and he also is a talented baseball player. In fact, he has musical recordings about to be released that are receiving rave reviews.
“He has two songs,” says his father. “One song is an inspirational piece for children to chase their dreams, and another one is what we call a bubble gum, Jackson Five thing about a crush he has with a little girl who lives in 216. That’s called 216 and it is reminiscent of that era when we had that bubble gum, Pop kind of music. I think his sound transcends genre’s, but it is rooted in the church.”
Rev. Winston adds, “He is a worshiper. When he is home, Jahi is doing something in the church—ushering or singing – and he has a strong, humble trait. In the interim while he has been waiting for various roles, every Sunday he is serving in the church.”
Performing in church plays or singing in the church choir made all of us courageous and confidant to be in front of people and express ourselves creatively," says 17-year-old Jelani Winston, Jahi's older brother. "I sing, act and dance as well.
"There is no sibling rivalry," he says. "What's good for one of us is good for all of us I believe. Family is family. Any opportunity for my little brother is an opportunity for us all."
"It's so much fun to watch him. He lights up on the stage," adds Ava Zeigers, a 15-year-old family friend, whose dream is to work backstage on Broadway. "He's really good and talented and inspiring."
Lolita Walker knows talent. She is an Atlanta studio owner and an accomplished playwright. "He was awesome on Broadway; he got the biggest ovations." Walker says of Jahi. "Atlanta has definitely changed from when I was young. If I had had the opportunities that are given to young people now, it's no telling. Like Georgia State University has a film and theatre program now. They did not have that program when I was in college.
"It started with LaFace Records as far as opening the doors for entertainment in Atlanta all the way around," Walker continues. "As, the years have progressed, I think Atlanta is as important as New York and Los Angeles now. Think about it, you've got Tyler Perry here who has made his own way, and you have a whole slew of artists that are from here like Usher and T.I. and TLC.
"Jahi is now one of Atlanta's best talents," Walker opines. "He's going all the way. He's going to be a top Hollywood artist; he is going to be 'that' actor 20 years from now - no doubt in my mind."
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