Just when a critic thinks there are no more area treasures to be unearthed, along comes the D.C. Youth Ensemble, the most dynamic, disciplined and sophisticated group of young performers imaginable.

Aged 12 to 25, most of them students at public junior high and high schools, these 23 multitalented singers, dancers and comics have been trained by Carol Foster, whose warmth and determination could probably inspire a monotone to become the next Placido Domingo. Working evenings and weekends, without benefit of grants or other financial assistance, Foster -- a teacher by profession -- has not only coached these young people on practical matters like vocal projection, high kicks and comic timing, but has imbued them with an almost palpable sense of pride in themselves and their craft.

And it's not only how these folks perform, but what they perform. Their show Saturday night at the YWCA Penney Auditorium was no "Fame"-like pastiche of soppy ballads and MTV-inspired production numbers, but rather an ode to, of all things, the minstrel show. Given the fact that the members of the ensemble are black, and that the minstrel show was in many ways the most racist form of American popular entertainment,, the concept alone held an inherent fascination. Thanks to Foster's scrupulous research, attention to detail and balanced viewpoint, the performance was provocative and exhilarating.

Held together by an ongoing, highly informative narrative, "Minstrelsy" boasted a wealth of authentic songs, dances, skits and other routines that simultaneously illuminated the historical forms -- many of them derived from African and Afro-American traditions -- and the heinous stereotypes that accompanied many of them.

To see black faces covered with the exaggerated "blackface" makeup worn by white men like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, to watch young blacks portraying Aunt Jemima and Old Black Joe, to hear them sing a song like "My Pickaninny Days" -- these were powerfully sobering images and sounds, and educational ones as well. Coupled with the inventive staging, perky five-piece band and the extraordinarily high caliber of the singing, dancing, recitation and bits of comic business, "Minstrelsy" proved to be one of this season's theatrical highlights. This critic, for one, can't wait to see what Foster and the D.C. Youth Ensemble come up with next.