Getting Real Behind the Wheel
Allen Sowelle & Josh Feinman Take Front Seat Roles in Discussing HIV Seroconversion Along with Other Social Woes
by Sean Black
Front Seat Chronicles is a Web-based programming series that skillfully navigates a myriad of tough conversations ranging in topic from death and incarceration to marriage equality and HIV infection. It is a collaboration of diverse writers and actors lending their talents as well as their own personal stories to direct and facilitate important conversations centered upon understanding.
With titles like “Welcome to the Gun Show,” “Love U, Mean It,” and “Is it True You Are Going to Die?” each episode takes place in the front seat of a car. “It is an environment that people are already very familiar with,” shares the show’s creator, writer and director Allen Sowelle. “People are physically close. It is an intimate space.”
Produced by veteran actor Josh Feinman (Transformers, Men of Honor), each Webisode drives home important life-lessons in four to eight-minute vignettes. Beyond offering comforting support and tactful tips to plausible conflict resolution, the show ultimately reminds us how to talk to one another with compassion and respect.
The series was inspired by a short story, “The Conversation,” written by Mohammed Bilal, a former co-worker of Sowelle’s at a nationwide non-profit that delivers “broadband advocacy” to poor people who were new to technology. The on-line series, which has episodes offered in French, Mandarin, and Spanish, as well as in English, is now in preproduction for a fourth season and has been just given the green light by CBS affiliate KCNC4 Denver for market-testing and expansion into full, half-hour television shows.
In one of the sad and all-to-relatable episodes for a person just diagnosed with HIV, “If I Tell You” peers into the life of an anguished young woman who struggles to come to terms with her seroconversion and tries to muster the courage to tell her boyfriend, unknowingly positive himself and presumably the cause of her infection.
This episode, about “stirring up awareness about HIV,” was an important one for Feinman as well as for Sowelle who directed the piece. Sowelle lost a cousin to AIDS complications in 1991 along with a close spiritual mentor several years later. “When you take into consideration the digital divide and a lack of quality information around healthcare, especially that which is disseminated to the Black community, you can form a better understanding of the disproportionate prevalence HIV/AIDS has within this demographic.”
He adds, “I have many friends who are HIV-positive and doing well today because of treatment. Over the last thirty-plus years the world has advanced and become more educated, but there is still much more that needs to be done. People get distracted by technology and social media. They become complacent. They get lulled into thinking that HIV/AIDS is ‘that crisis’ that peaked in the nineties.”
Raised in Northern California by a single teenaged mom, who lost track of her baby’s father when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam, Sowelle shares a script that has yet to be cast. The story puts the high beams on his caring, real-life character.
Actor and platinum-selling French hip hop artist Gilles Duarte (right), aka Stomy Bugsy, stars alongside Monia Ayachi in “Dis Mois,” the French version of “If I Tell You.” Duarte recently attended Desert AIDS Project’s 20th annual Steve Chase Humanitarian gala held in Palm Springs, California, with Feinman. Duarte shared, “This episode will move people because we don’t know when this disease will be cured. It can touch everybody. The Steve Chase event encouraged me to use my platform as a public figure in the entertainment world to speak even more on behalf of HIV awareness. I am even more inspired to spread the word for everybody to get checked, to protect yourself, to educate others to protect themselves too, and to help fight this disease by any means necessary.”
“I didn’t know my father growing up,” begins Sowelle. “In fact, I didn’t know my father at all until I was well into my adulthood, around thirty-five.” Recalling his first introduction to his father on a Valentine’s Day, he shares that two months later his father and mother were married for the first time on Easter Sunday. “Finding out that I had a dad and that I had siblings—it was a trip,” Sowelle happily recalls.
Soon after, however, tragedy befell the reunited family. “Four years into it we found out that my father had prostate cancer and four months after that he passed. In the four years that they were together I had never seen my mom happier. They were high school sweethearts. It was like they picked up right where they left off—they didn’t skip a beat.”
Choked up, Sowelle presses on. “The experience taught me a lot about manhood, a lot about patience, and a lot about forgiveness. Watching him deal with it [cancer] in such a graceful and beautiful manner changed my life.”
Sowelle, giving his mother respite, was with his father as he took his final breath. “My mom came shortly after my father passed and we sat in the car and talked about those previous four years and what my parents’ relationship meant and how grateful we were for having him in our lives—even for that short amount of time.”
Shortly after his father’s passing Sowelle met Feinman, a trained actor from New York who relocated to the City of Angels to pursue a career in television and film. Recently landing a role on a new Amazon Prime series called Bosch, based on the Michael Connelly book series, Feinman, like Sowelle, is committed to fostering a better world outside of his professional aspirations.
For nearly twelve years, Feinman has worked as a public motivator for a non-profit organization called Enrichment Works, whose contracts include the Los Angeles Unified School District and the California Public Library System. Billed as “a little bit Iliad, a lot of Odyssey and a boatload of fun,” the performance is a one-man, forty-five minute interactive show where Feinman brings students up from the audience to help him tell the journey of Odysseus.
“Alongside Front Seat Chronicles it is one of the projects that I am most proud of because I am changing kids’ lives and perceptions and I am opening their eyes to not only classic literature but to the arts as well.”
Feinman believes in including HIV sensitivity training in a similar venue. “I think there is no greater time than now to educate kids about HIV/AIDS; how the virus is spread and how it can be stopped. I think it should be a part of every curriculum, but I do think, too, there is an age that may be too young to comprehend. But beyond kindergarten, first, or second grade, I think you can start to introduce kids in a general way to staying safe and caring for one another.”
Jumping in, Sowelle adds, “The highest order for Front Seat Chronicles is the highest order for any art form and that is to inform and inspire. As long as we are able to make connections and bring a little more understanding, a little more empathy, a little more compassion with each episode, no matter what story lines we choose, then that’s a good day for us.”
Together Sowelle and Feinman are changing the world one seat belt at a time.
To watch on-line episodes of Front Seat Chronicles, log on to: www.frontseatchronicles.com.
Sean Black is an Editor at Large at A&U.