They're lounging on the high-tech benches of the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab. Five young performers: one from Cuba, two black Americans who are from Oklahoma but have African-sounding names, a Haitian-born young man with a Dutch name who grew up in Puerto Rico and a Hawaiian with generous doses of Portuguese and Chinese blood. Meet the cast of the featured play of this year's cultural diversity festival at the Kennedy Center. It's called "Collage," and its multi-ethnic cast is taking a break in a long day of rehearsing.

"Okay, we go in three minutes, people, if you've got to go to the bathroom or something," yells production assistant Ron Lignelli, and the figures in the flowing robes rise from the benches. Leonor Chaves removes her radio earphones. Faida Lampley wraps herself in printed African cloth.

"How would it be if we took this little rabbit ear of cloth here and made it permanent?" asks costumer Bunny Jankowski.

Faida tries a dance step, then runs up and down the ramp that serves as a stage, but still isn't sure the costume arrangement will do.

"Let's tie it with a piece of twine," decides the costumer. "Then we'll know if it's going to work."

"Places!" yells Ron.

Assistant director Kristin Card takes a swig of chocolate milk from a half-gallon bottle. Ayubu Kamau, in a diaphanous black costume with sleeves that suggest wings, leaps on stage and strikes a gong. There's no curtain to go up, but the play is beginning.

"I wanted to provide a vehicle for artists from different cultures to interact and for people to feel comfortable with other people's cultures," the play's author Jonetta Barras explains to a visitor in a whisper as the voice of the Sky Goddess sets the scene, telling how poetry, music and dance had left the earth for a kingdom in the sky. "The message is that though we come from different cultures, there's some kind of human bond."

Barras, a community organizer, poet and journalist, wrote the play -- her first -- especially for the Kennedy Center's annual February cultural diversity festival. To get her message across, she took the three most visible ethnic groups in the Washington area -- African, Latino and Oriental -- and told a story of their contributions to world culture using a folklore base. To emphasize the theme, the stage is hung with banners painted by local school children which depict various cultures.

"One day the Sky Goddess wanted to see how the people on earth were doing," intones Richard Gaetjens, seated on stage in a lotus position wearing a red jump suit and strumming a guitar.

The earthlings -- for this is after the fall -- moan and cry and the Sky Goddess sends three emissaries on a mission of mercy. Thom Kam, in the guise of Chin the poet, is to bring poetry to the world. Faida Lampley, who will be reincarnated as an African villager, will bring rhythm, and Leonor Chaves, now called Juanita, will bring the gift of dance. To help them out of difficulties, the Sky Goddess sends Chameleon, a sort of supernatural butterfly played by Ayubu Kamau, who also directs the play.

"Chameleon is kinda cynic. He tends to kind of grumble but he still has the courage to try," says Ayubu during a break. "That's what I like about him."

He's seated on stage, strumming a koto, a recent addition to the play's cultural diversity.

"A Japanese lady -- a musician -- gave it to us yesterday for the duration of the play. I'm mostly a percussionist -- African rhythms are my strongest suit," says Ayubu, whose chosen name means "patience." A former teacher, he now works full time for a non-profit cultural arts group called the Nubian League, Inc.

"In non-profit theater, you usually help out in every way -- painting sets, doing publicity," says Leonor, who performs regularly with GALA, a Latino community theater group. "To be here at the Kennedy Center, to get paid to do what we're good at doing -- it's like being in paradise for a few weeks."

Thom, who played the Kennedy Center once before with the Honolulu Theater for Youth, is the only actor who isn't Washington-based. Few qualified Oriental performers showed up at the auditions, so Thom was recruited from New York, where he's trying to break into big-time theater.

"The play says some good things," says Thom. "Everybody's had input."

There has also been some cross-cultural education among the performers themselves.

"In the Latin-American scenes, Leonor told me not to shake so much because Latino women don't shake above the waist," says Faida. "And in the African scenes I taught her to shake her whole body." CELEBRATING CULTURES: "Collage," for children eight to 13, Saturday at 11 and 1 in the Kennedy Center Theater Lab. Free; first-come, first-served seating. Additional performances on February 12 at 11, February 19 at 11, February 26 at 11, and February 27 at 11 and 1. Here's the rest of the cultural diversity celebration program: Japanese Koto concerts, Saturday, Sunday, and February 12 and 13 at 2; Khmer classical dancing, Saturday and Sunday at 3; story hours on Sunday and February 13 and 20 at 11; Chinese dancing, February 12 at 1, February 13 at 3; the Kubanakan Afro-Cuban musical group, February 12 at 3, February 13 at 1; Chinese string music, February 19 and 20 at 1; "Tenth World" music group, February 19 and 20 at 2; the Rumisonko Andean folk music ensemble, February 19 and 20 at 3; a seminar on ethnic books for children, February 26 at 1 and a guitar jam session, February 27 at 3. All events are free, in the Theater Lab.