Most Texans probably aren't familiar with the story of Barbara Smith Conrad, the mezzo-soprano opera singer who was famously barred from performing in a University of Texas production simply because of the color of her skin. The 1957 incident drew the attention of national press and famously attracted the attention and support of people like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, but was seemingly swept under the rug and forgotten about shortly thereafter. It's certainly something I never heard about when I was a student at that very school in the 1990s.
Racism and Texas are frequently paired together in the conventional wisdom, but the liberal bubble that Austin resides in seems sacrosanct in a way that surely wouldn't allow something like this to happen. Which is exactly what makes Mat Hames' beautiful film so surprising, yet it doesn't take anything away from the pure bravado and pride exhibited by Conrad both during the event, and throughout the rest of her continuing life. When I Rise is a very powerful film about one woman, her resolve, and her talent.
Barbara Smith Conrad was raised in the Piney Woods of East Texas as part of a very small black community called Center Point. Although she was taught all subjects in school, music was a large part of her life: in school, at home, and in church. She lived with a large and supportive musical family which contributed to her musical education "I learned hard music. I didn't know it was hard." With the support of her parents, she later enrolled in the music program at the University of Texas, which had just started to accept African American students in 1956.
Although she faced obstacles like "whites only" dormitories and cafeterias on campus, Conrad's college career was fairly standard until she was cast as the female leading role in the UT opera production of Dido and Aeneas, which was to be a joint production of the music and theater schools. That was October 1956, but due to increasing pressure by outside forces, including the Texas legislature, she was informed in late April 1957 by Dean Doty of the College of Fine Arts that she would no longer be playing the role. The decision was handed down by university president Logan Wilson who couldn't even deliver the news to her in person. In fact, he never even met or spoke with Conrad about the event.
The university newspaper The Daily Texan ran a headline on May 2, 1957 reading "Negro Student Withdrawn From UT Opera Cast," which sparked a firestorm of national attention. Letters of support for both Conrad and the president's decision poured in from all over, and she quickly found herself in the midst of unwanted attention. She received threatening phone calls and actually had to leave campus at one point. During this time she was brought to the Daily Texan for unknown reasons (according to director Hames) and was filmed reading the story. It's grainy black and white footage, but there is one moment where she looks directly at the camera with eyes that show fiery defiance. It's the cutting moment that defines this film.
During the height of the controversy, she heard from popular African American entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte, who offered her support. Belafonte went as far as to offer to pay for her education himself, if she chose to go to another school. But, in her own words, Conrad said "I'm proud to be a Texan. I always was." So she remained at UT where the remainder of her college days were less dramatic, and she graduated and moved to New York City. But what might have been a significant chapter to some wasn't even a speed bump to Conrad. She began performing soon after graduation, joining the chorus of Harry Belafonte's show, and become a well-known opera singer in her own right.
Since then, she has appeared around the world in front of thousands of people, performed at the Met, played title roles in famous operas like Carmen and Porgy and Bess, sung at the White House and in front of the Pope, was recognized by the UT alumni as a Distinguished Alumnus, and has a scholarship in her name. It's an amazing story, but it's only words on a page until you see When I Rise. Hames does a commendable job of letting Conrad speak for herself and show the world the graceful dignity that she carries herself with, and at times you may forget you're watching a documentary. Never once has she complained about what happened to her in the 1950s, and when the Texas legislature issues a proclamation for her in 2009, there isn't a dry eye in the house. Thankfully she brings some levity to the situation as she brandishes a gavel and says "Y'all behave now!"
As someone who was raised in Texas, racism is no strange concept, but watching an actual Ku Klux Klan parade coming down Congress Avenue in Austin mere steps away from the Texas capitol building was chilling. There's a good deal of unearthed racism in this film, everything from comments about the need for segregated schools to a sign hanging in Greenville, Texas that reads "Greenville: The Blackest Land, The Whitest People." This was definitely something Conrad would have lived through in her childhood, but the most powerful moment we see in the film is when she is brought to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University. She is presented with a file folder bulging at the seams with the letters that were sent to Logan Wilson regarding the opera incident. It's a difficult moment for her, and for the audience.
When I Rise is a beautifully crafted film that sheds light on an incredible talent, and brings attention to something that many people may not even be aware of. There are plenty of interviews with pertinent people, and historical footage to go along with with the events, but Conrad is the real focus, and it's very easy to fall in love with her attitude. She held her head high throughout everything, and still does to this very day. Very highly recommended.