Last week, Emmy award-winning actor, author, singer, philanthropist, and community activist Sheryl Lee Ralph, along with The DIVA Foundation, will unveil the new documentary short “Unexpected” at the 2023 Essence Film Festival in New Orleans.
The documentary short, produced by Ralph and directed by Zeberiah Newman, follows Masonia Traylor and Ciarra “Ci Ci” Coven, two young mothers who have turned their own HIV diagnosis into selfless activism. The film documents them as they travel to rural parts of the country to connect with newly diagnosed women and offer supplies, information and most importantly hope. While hearing from experts on the subject, including Dazon Dixon, Krista Martel, and Linda Scruggs, the documentary brings the audience on a ride along with Ci Ci and Masonia as they road trip to the rural south to expand their sisterhood and let these women know they are not alone. This beautiful film highlights the disproportionate impact of HIV among Black women, particularly in the US South, and portrays the lived experiences of motherhood, the challenges of navigating healthcare systems, and the impact of community.
Zeberiah Newman, a multi-hyphenate storyteller with 15 years experience as a Producer and credits including 5 seasons with “The Ellen Show,” 7 seasons with “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” and the Oscar qualified short documentary “Right to Try,” says of “Unexpected,” “After making the documentary short ‘Right To Try’ which looked at the business of HIV, I was shocked and alarmed at the data coming out of the South in regards to HIV. This was a story that I felt compelled to tell.” He goes on to say, “’HIV has a new target set on a new community. Heterosexual Black women living in the South are fighting this disease in isolation, in fear and without the adequate medical and psychological support needed to combat this devastating disease. This situation is not unlike a five alarm fire… the sirens should be blasting.” Zeb was thrilled to join forces with Sheryl Lee Ralph to amplify this important message and recalled, “working with Sheryl Lee Ralph is like a master class in the art of storytelling. Her eye for character and taste has contributed to the film in countless ways. Her well-documented history working in HIV nonprofit has given her unique insights into this story. She has become a dream-come-true partner.”
Ralph muses, “I can see thru my work on Abbott Elementary that art and entertainment can impact what people can think and feel. When people are moved by art, their minds are open to the message and intention of the creation.” Speaking on The DIVA Foundation, her non-profit formed in 1990 to shine a light on the issue of HIV awareness, Ralph says, “When I created The DIVA Foundation, I wanted to utilize the transformative power of the arts to inform, heal, and bridge divides. This has always been important to me and to the people who volunteer with our organization.” She goes on to say, “I really believe in this documentary piece and how the stories of Masonia Traylor and Ciarra “Ci Ci” Covin have come to life in a meaningful way to help women living with HIV all over world. I admire their clarity, strength, and bravery. I’m happy to partner with Zeb on ‘Unexpected.’ His storytelling ability is exceptional and I love when storytellers have a runway and a path to soar.”
The “Unexpected” screening takes place today, Friday, June 30 at 11:50am at the Essence Auditorium in the New Orleans Convention Center and is FREE and open to the public. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with Ci Ci, Masonia, and film’s producer Sheryl Lee Ralph.
Stay tuned for more from The DIVA Foundation.