Six aspiring young actors - Julian, Jaz, Analisa, Joseph, Justice and Melody - meet award-winning actress, playwright and professor Anna Deavere Smith, then embark on a three-day creative process that will change everything they think they know about performing. First, Deavere Smith sits with each student to ask about their family histories and their lives. "My work has to do with looking at identity through language," explains Deavere Smith, who records each of the student interviews. Justice becomes overwhelmed as he speaks about his sexuality and his hesitation to come out to his grandfather. "I felt the most vulnerable I've ever felt," he says afterwards. "I felt like she got things out of me that I didn't know I had inside." Later, Anna sits the actors down in a rehearsal space and speaks to them about acting and confidence: "Confidence is overrated," she advises, "Give doubt a try."
On Day Two, Anna reveals the students' big challenge: they will switch identities with an assigned partner and bring the stories recorded the previous day to life in a performance for a live audience the following night. The students are daunted by the task ("How am I going to be someone who's not me at all?" Analisa worries), but Deavere Smith brings in vocal and movement coaches to help them embody each other's voices and mannerisms. Regrouping in the rehearsal space, Melody, who is white, practices her monologue of Joseph, who is African-American and spoke about Trayvon Martin. Deavere Smith is moved by Melody's performance, noting how the assignment is a gift for the students to understand different points of view. "There is a crisis in this country that we don't know how to feel about anybody but the people who not only look like us, but think like us," she tells them. "Take the broad jump towards the other." When her monologue is performed by Justice, though, Jaz becomes uncomfortable. "I felt like my words were no longer mine," she explains. Later, Deavere Smith helps Jaz edit the piece to take out anything she feels is too personal. For the rest of the day, the students practice their pieces around the city, and shop for costumes.
Six hours before the performance, the students gather for a final rehearsal, and Julian admits it is "definitely a little terrifying." Deavere Smith does not mince words when critiquing their performances, and says they must work harder. At first, Justice feels his mentor isn't appreciative of his hard work, but soon realizes she wants them to push themselves and be motivated by their mistakes. At the ODC Theatre, in a production which Deavere Smith has entitled Identity, the young actors take the stage to share their monologues with an enthusiastic audience. Deavere Smith is overjoyed. "I feel an extraordinary kinship with them," she gushes. "There's not a whole lot in my life that gives me as much joy as to feel that." For the students, the experience has been transformative. "I feel like I have
more confidence than I did at the start of the week. I feel like I have more humility," beams Justice. "I'd definitely do it all again - and again and again."
Credits: Produced and Directed by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon; Executive Producer: Lin Arison. For HBO: Supervising Producer: Jackie Glover; Executive Producer: Sheila Nevins.