By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
(CNN) - It starts at the mall, with a girl in a pink dress, browsing alone.
"Why is she at the mall?" a teen behind her sputters. "She ain't got no money."
Mona Lisa hears it. It's not the first time she's been picked on. She argues a little, tries to ignore them, but they bump into her and call her names. She wants to run, wants to be strong, wants all this to just go away.
At home later, the phone rings: "I just wanted to tell you, you should kill yourself," a voice cackles. "You're ugly and nobody will ever love you."
After a day like this, Mona Lisa believes what she's hearing. She grabs a handful of pills and climbs out the window. With voices in her head yelling louder and louder, she jumps.
Actress Alexis Lee crumples to the floor. The jump isn't real, the dress is a costume, the play is fiction, at least at the moment. But Mona Lisa and Alexis aren't so different. At 17, Alexis has been bullied and teased, been made to feel ugly, like she's nothing. She moved to escape terrible situations, only to be delivered into worse circumstances. She's got scars from where she cut herself, memories from when she tried to kill herself.
"The only way to have some peace for me is to not be here," she remembers thinking.
Alexis didn't write the play, called "Deep Within." That work was done by Noemi, Sabrina and Velicia, girls who lived, at least for a little while, in a juvenile detention center in Georgia. They participated in Playmaking for Girls, a theater workshop created by Atlanta nonprofit Synchronicity Theatre to encourage incarcerated girls to tell their stories and find their own voices.
Alexis knows only their first names, but she knows kids in detention centers do not usually talk about bullying, or suicide, what they were feeling at their worst or how they're going to get better.
"The majority of them probably don't have that outlet to speak and express on how they feel based on what's been going on in their lives, who did them wrong, and this is their chance," Alexis says.
She knows because she's been there, too.
'Not a 30-second sound bite'
A few times a year, Rachel May and Susie Spear Purcell walk into a room of 20 girls who won't talk, won't make eye contact and can't be bothered with theater games or fairy tales. The directors have two days to cajole them to write short plays and act them out.
Their message is consistent: We care about you, and it's important for people to hear what you have to say. Your story matters.
What defines you? Maybe it’s the shade of your skin, the place you grew up, the accent in your words, the make up of your family, the gender you were born with, the intimate relationships you chose to have or your generation? As the American identity changes we will be there to report it. In America is a venue for creative and timely sharing of news that explores who we are. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.