Even before she became an accomplished singer, even when she was a young woman and legendary entertainer Harry Belafonte said he could still see the "country" in the girl from Center Point, Texas, opera singer Barbara Smith Conrad was a diva in the truest sense of the word. In the way the word was initially meant to be used -- she is an international opera star.
There always had a regality about her. Even as a young woman. Her poise and maturity were what drew people to her. Her charm and the beauty of her talent drew them in.
That charm, regality and poise was in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, where Smith Conrad was honored at a viewing of a documentary based on her life called "When I Rise" at the National Archives on Pennsylvania Ave.
Set to air on PBS in February, "When I Rise" tells the story of Smith Conrad being in the first class of African Americans to attend the University of Texas in Austin. There she finds herself in a middle of a national uproar when the young soprano is cast as the romantic lead in the opera "Dido and Aeneas." Smith Conrad was cast as Dido and a white student was cast as Aeneas causing many to protest the "racial mixing" depicted by the UT opera.
Conrad Smith received death threats and even her own state representative used the situation to further his fight to keep segregation as the law of the land. In the end, she was not allowed to perform in the play, and at one point, she even returned to her hometown of Center Point until the fervor died down.
But the story received nationwide attention, catching the eye of singer, actor and Civil Rights Activist Harry Belafonte, who became a looming influence in Smith Conrad's life as a mentor, helping her hone her talents after college, giving her guidance in her career and some of her first breaks on television and stage.
This fostered a life-long friendship where Conrad Smith would go on to say that besides her own parents, Belafonte is one person she would never want to disappoint.
The documentary is very affecting as it follows her from that initial heart-break of being cut from "Dido and Aeneas" to her rise as an international superstar in the classical music world. Both a woman of grand theatrics and a sweet, Texas girl, Conrad Smith is full of energy and humor throughout the film. And her moments when she returns to the University of Texas as an adult both inspires the young talent of UT and helps heal old wounds. Directed by Mat Hames, this is a story of forgiveness, but is is also the story of one woman's dream fulfilled, seeing her lifelong ambitions come true on the world stage.
I was fortunate enough to meet Barbara Smith Conrad at the D.C. event as a guest of the viewing. As someone who was raised learning about the sacrifices made by the black men and women who came before me, I was greatly moved. I cried during the documentary. I pleasantly blubbered my way through thanking Smith Conrad for simply being herself (while working in my own Texas roots via my father). And I could not stop smiling. Hearing a story of triumph despite (or in spite) of adversity is always thrilling. Although Smith Conrad came into a world that acted as if it were not ready for her, she told that world it wasn't getting a choice. She was coming and gunning for the top whether the world was ready or not.
There's nothing more awe inspiring than that -- A woman who didn't take "but you're a just a little black girl from Center Point" as an answer to anything.
The event (and documentary) was sponsored by AT&T and actor Jeffrey Wright was the master's of ceremony. BET's CEO Debra Lee and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson hosted the event, while Reps. James Clyburn and Eddie Bernice Johnson honored Smith Conrad's achievements. It was a wonderful event (really can't say enough nice things about it), where I was both moved and entertained. I also got to eat macaroons for the first time in my life and I don't know how I got to nearly 33 years of age without EVER tasting something so delicious.
The documentary viewing at the National Archives was a wonderful way to "pre" kick-off the week of the Congressional Black Caucus' Annual Legislative Conference.
Here are some photos from the dessert reception after the viewing:
All photos by Danielle Belton