It was a dusty stage, in a small auditorium. There was none of the darkness in which the theater's illusions are usually sheltered, no soft lights and shadows. Instead there was the harsh illumination from the daylight and 390 of the inmates of the Federal Correctional Institution for Women here.

Tawnya Pettiford, the Lady in Purple, spoke the opening lines of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf."

"Dark phrases of womanhood! of never having been a girl! ... I can't hear anythin! but maddening screams! ... somebody! anybody! sing a black girl's song! ... sing her song of life! she's been dead so long! she doesn't know the sound! of her own voice! ... "

The voices came back in a gospel refrain, counter point and chorus. "That's right, baby, tell it. Tell it like it is."

But it was not the sweet narcotic of reassuring religion that struck the chords of affirmation and assent, but the echoes of their own sharp encounters with a reality.

And so the players played an hour's worth of excerpts from the choreopoem by Ntozake Shange. The inmates listened to three members of the cast of the play which has been on tour for the last 14 months. The cast members had flown to Alderson on a chartered plane from Washington Wednesday morning, and they had a half-hour to get ready before the inmates, wearing blue jeans and the hard faces of experience, filed in to hear the poems and see the dances that talked of the bittersweet struggle for identity and self-worth.

There were parts missing from the play -- passages concerning rape, abortion, and a long, tragic climactic passage at the play's end were left out.

"They're in a heavy situation," said Pettiford, her cloud-like hair framing a face filled with the intensity of the young and determined. "They don't need to be heavied out, they know about that stuff. We want them to be entertained, we don't want to blow them away. They've gone through enough already."

Pettiford recited the poem, "somebody almost walked off wid all my stuff":

"& it waznt a spirit took my stuff! waz a man whose ego walked around like Rodan's shadow waz a man faster n my innocence! waz a lover!i made too much room for! almost ran off wit all my stuff! & i didn't know i'd give it up so quik! ...

The room was as quiet as the places where lessons and grudges and hurt are stored.

At the end, the player joined hands, and sang, in gospel rhythm, the words, "I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely." The words swelled like the tide. The women in the audience left their cold metal chairs and gave the players a standing ovation.

Sara Jane Moore, serving time at Alderson for the attempted assassination of President Ford, covered the play for the prison newspaper. "I liked it. You don't get to see many plays here."

At the end there was time, a short time, for the inmates to talk to the players, who sat, legs dangling at the front of the stage, and passed a microphone among them. Most of the questions were aimed at women behind the players' masks, questions about their home towns and astrological signs, and how they got their jobs, and what they would do next.

The actresses told them they were tired, that they would be glad when the tour was over, "glad to go home."

The audience laughed. "Us too, sister," they said. "Us too."

But Hattie Norris wanted to know about the play. "Tawnya, can you tell me, when you said somebody walked away with all your stuff, what did you mean? Was it your pride and your ego that he walked away with?"

"You got it, sister," Tawnya Petti-ford said. "That's exactly right."

Outside the auditorium, Hattie's smile caught the light from the warm winter day. "I thought that was what she meant. I knew that's what it meant in the black dialect, because the black dialect is the way I see things. The end of the rainbow... that usually means a fine day. I think I got it down pat now. You have to cut out the garbage and don't let it get too close. Sometimes," she said, "you know you have something good, but lots of times it seems like nobody else thinks you do." She knew what the play was about, she said. She had attempted suicide herself.

Elizabeth, small and pale and frightened, was not sure she understood the play, not sure she wanted to. "I wish they didn't talk about God at the end," she said, her eyes darting. "I think about death, sometimes, I think about meeting God, and how mad at me he'll be. I don't want to think about God."

They talked with the women a few moments longer, but there was a plane to catch. They got up to go.

There was Yvette Hawkins Greenlee, the Lady in Blue, who had worked her way through the worlds of off-Broadway and Broadway, music, dance and writing since high school. She is 38, and she got married just a few weeks ago, having "run right smack into myself" on the road, and learning, from the youth and the camaraderie of some of the other actresses, just how many shields and defenses she had built around herself since she had been their age.

There was Tawnya Pettiford, who graduated just a few years ago from Carnegie Mellon University, and toured with her own college repertory company and joined the cast as an understudy until she became a principal in mid-tour. The company had educated her, she said, in "the depth and true understanding and respect for what it is being a woman," and she is young enough that the words still have lots of room in them for experience to fill.

There was Margaret McGrady, 23, from upstate New York. Another college girl, quiet and mannered, she read the Book of Exodus in a Bible on the plane from Washington. Worlds away from her audience, perhaps, but she would wring the emotion from every word of her lines, and the inmates respected her for it. "I like that one," said an inmate of Margaret. "She know how to cry. She knows all about tears."

As the small van that brought them from the airport approached the prison, Hawkins looked at the green yards and neat brick buildings and said, "It looks like a prep school."

Inside, Joe Salisbury, the assistant administrator for education, made it clear that it was a prison, that the women were under guard, "and whether that's right or wrong, or whether the law is right or wrong is beyond the point."

"And whether they're guilty or innocent is beyond the point," said Hawkins.

"That's right," said Salisbury.

In the end, when it was over, they were tired, and there was little to say. "What can you say," said Hawkins, who used to teach English and drama classes in prison. "Someone did walk away with all their stuff."