Cinema screens Conrad’s documentary ‘When I Rise’

Josh Cooper | Staff Writer

Barbara Smith Conrad’s career has been tumultuous.

She went from being forcibly expelled from a college opera role to performing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in a span of a few years. Now, her story is coming to Chautauqua.

A 2010 film about her journey titled “When I Rise” will be screened at 12:15 p.m. today at the Chautauqua Cinema.

When Conrad was cast opposite a white boy in the University of Texas’ production of Dido and Aeneas, many in the segregated community were outraged, and ultimately, she was yanked from the cast after the Texas legislature threatened to pull school funding.

Her story doesn’t involve the more violent elements of the civil rights movement, but rather demonstrates that racism reached into every corner of American culture, said Don Carleton, the executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas and the film’s executive producer.

“The civil rights movement is extremely complex in its history, but the general memory of the struggle naturally focused on the most horrific examples of violence, like lynching or the three freedom riders killed in Mississippi,” he told The New York Times. “This doesn’t compare in terms of human misery and cost, but it shows that racism was so pervasive it touched all aspects of our culture.”

The film recounts Conrad’s story, and her healing journey, which took her back to the Texas legislature, the very place that so flagrantly sought to deny her rights.

Conrad said the making of the film was in itself a cathartic experience.

“Making the film was a huge part of the healing process for me,” Conrad said. “I would’ve never gone back to look at all that stuff. I had no great desire to do that.”

She credits the film’s director, Mat Hames, with challenging her to be genuine in relating her experiences and emotions.

“Mat Hames brought things out of me that I didn’t even know were there,” Conrad said. “I didn’t know how much I was holding in there. Sooner or later, you have to face your past and march on with it. And this film has done that for me.”

She said watching the film brought out emotions she hadn’t yet experienced, but should have.

“I did not weep once from 1957 to when they brought the film to me to view,” Conrad said. “I did not shed a tear about that situation. And then I did. And then I couldn’t stop.”