Barbara Smith Conrad grew up as a black child in segregated East Texas. She did not seek to vote, nor make a stand by sitting in the front of the bus. She only wanted to sing.
However, in 1957 when she was cast opposite a white male student in a University of Texas at Austin opera production, it was just as controversial. She quickly was thrown into the drama of a larger struggle for civil rights.
Segregationists in the Texas Legislature objected to Conrad’s casting and threatened to withhold state financing from the university. This resulted in university officials pulling her from the production and replacing her with a white student. The controversy quickly made headlines.
Harry Belafonte heard of Conrad’s situation and stepped in, promising to pay for her music education anywhere in the world if she chose to leave Texas. However, she chose to stay.
Conrad’s story has been transformed into the documentary “When I Rise.”
The documentary will be screened Friday, Saturday and May 3 and 4 at Theatre 20 @ Potter Place. Theatre 20 is the intimate home theater to the Actors’ Preparatory Exchange.
The film is part of the Austin Film Society’s Texas Film Makers Network, of which APEX now is a member, said Chris Abraham, APEX executive producer.
The network’s sole job is to get Texas films screened by Texas audiences. “When I Rise” is the first film they are screening.
The documentary not only is an opportunity to support independent Texas films, but also an opportunity to broaden one’s perspective on civil rights.
“This documentary covers the life of an East Texan, her struggles, triumphs and ultimate path to forgiveness of ignorance,” Abraham said. “It’s all about taking a benchmark event in life and using it to propel you towards the life you dream about.”
The screenings also lend themselves the opportunity to meet the production staff of the film.
Don Carleton, executive producer, will be in attendance Friday and Saturday. Brenda Gunn, associate director for research and collections at the University of Texas’ Briscoe Center for American History, who also is from Tyler, will be at the screenings next weekend. Carleton and Gunn will be available for a question-and-answer session after the screenings, Abraham said.
The film starts at 7:30 p.m. and tickets can be purchased at www.apextheatre20.com.