Alma Crawford found they had much in common: Both young black women, both Catholic, both familiar with the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse. But the gulf between them remained. Crawford was a healthy actress. The other woman was a former intravenous drug user dying of AIDS.

As they spoke, Crawford worried about exploitation, about intruding, about appropriating this woman's story. She wondered what the dying woman thought of her. And then the phone rang.

"I can't talk right now," the woman with AIDS told her caller. "I'm in conference with the young lady who's going to portray me on stage."

Alma Crawford knew then that she could go ahead, and when the DC Cabaret production of "A Dance Against Darkness: Living With AIDS" opens today, the woman's story will be told.

"She's the most courageous person I've ever encountered," Crawford says of the 30-year-old who served as the model for the character Janice. "I wanted to expand her, to be able to amplify her witness."

In the three months since the songs, monologues and sketches that became "A Dance Against Darkness" were first discussed, the show has become a witness in itself. The dozen singers and writers and actors who make up the writing and performing ensemble say that what began as a theatrical exploration of a socially relevant subject has become an act of self-exploration for the cast and creators.

They say the show has forced them to confront painful realities. A singer going through a divorce thinks about the new dangers of single life, a mother about the world her 5-year-old son will grow up in, a gay man about his own conflicting feelings about homosexuality.

"It's been, I think, a healing process," says director Roberta Gasbarre. "This company is as diverse as we hope our audience will be. We have married with children, bisexual, straight, gay, the worried well and the people who are worried because they have a right to be ... Their fears and blocks are re ally our audience's fears and blocks. In order to work on this piece, we had to examine them and call on our artistry to get us through."

Stanley and I talked a lot about life, death and rebirth. I'd read that before you actually died, you started to see a light -- and that when you were ready to die, the most important thing to do was to follow the light. I used to drill Stanley on that. 'Now, what are you gonna do, Stanley?' 'I gotta follow the light.'

-- monologue from "A Dance Against Darkness" For her audition, Petrina Huston read from Stanley's obituary. They had met when she volunteered at the Whitman-Walker Clinic and was assigned to his case as the friend, advocate and companion the clinic calls a "buddy." After he died, she became another man's buddy. When he died, she felt she had to take a break from death, but then she heard about "A Dance Against Darkness."

When she got the part, she told Stanley's story -- and her own -- into a tape recorder, and then watched as writers and director shaped her experience to fit the show.

"Sometimes something I would say would be reworded for dramatic effect, and I wouldn't like it," she says. "It's hard when you're an actress and you want to make something as accessible as you can, but the image you have has been changed ... But I'm an actress, so there came a point where I had to say, 'You're an actress -- do this!' "

Serge Seiden plays David, one of the show's main characters. "I didn't know the people I've interviewed or talked to very well," he says. "With one guy, I just called him because someone gave me his number. We ended up being on the phone an hour and a half, with him just telling me all this stuff. I mean ... I was really ... at the end ..." He stumbles and then finishes. "Finally, when I said goodbye, I felt he had given me something. His stuff is in my head when I do that character. His story is coming out through me."

You better keep one in your wallet --

Keep one in your car.

Keep one at the office --

You can file it under "R."

-- from "Safe Sex Blues," sung while an actor flings packages of condoms into the audience

Fred Anzevino talked for months about doing an AIDS show. "The big reason I became involved in the show was because I was scared to death of it, and I thought the best way to deal with it was to face it."

He enlisted fellow Cabaret member Paula Burns, and the two conducted most of the interviews with people with AIDS and their buddies, families and nurses that became the basis for Bari Biern's script and the songs set to musical director Roy Barber's music. "It was really fascinating because everybody had a story, and everybody wanted to tell their story," says Anzevino. "A PWA {person with AIDS} was explaining it to me and said the only thing a dying person has left is his story, and he wants it to be told."

And Anzevino wanted it told this summer, which meant a pressured schedule the others shied away from. But in the end he won. April was for research, May for writing, June for rehearsing and then -- July and the opening. The show will run Saturday and Sunday nights through August, with a performance on July 19 interpreted for the deaf.

"We all felt so strongly about this subject that once we started it, it just happened," says Burns. "It was almost like waiting to see a friend who is dying of AIDS. You say, 'Don't put aside to tomorrow what you can do today, because it's so important and you might not get to do it again.' "

At an open rehearsal two weeks ago, the show was still very rough -- heavy-handed at some moments, obscure at others -- and the invited audience of Whitman-Walker volunteers and friends of the cast energetically pointed out the weak spots. But a lullaby about babies with AIDS, the funny, raunchy song about safe sex, the monologues drew tears and applause. For this audience and this cast, education was more to the point than polish.

The writers hope the play will motivate, that people will leave and want to respond somehow, but not all the group is equally optimistic.

"The people I imagine will see the show and the people who should see the show are different people," says Huston. "The people I would like to see the show are the people who think it's not going to touch them, the people who aren't involved at all. It's a wonderful show, but it's in d.c. space and white middle-class America doesn't come to d.c. space and black middle-class America doesn't come to d.c. space."

One Whitman-Walker volunteer says, "I think the public is AID-ed out. They're not reading the newspapers anymore and they're not watching the TV spots. My perception of what the majority -- the silent majority -- thinks of AIDS is that it's education, that it's research, that it's funding. I honestly feel people are missing the reality of AIDS, and the reality is that people are dying."

What did we do before ...

Who can remember?

What did we talk about?

What did we think about?

I don't remember -- do you? ...

What is the lesson that we should be learning?

Why is the world turning over in pain?

I have to believe that for all we're losing

There's got to be something to gain.

-- opening song to "A Dance Against Darkness"

He has volunteered at Whitman-Walker for years, at one point quitting his job for several months to live off savings and devote himself full time to clinic work. When the Cabaret people came to him, they found a man ready to help. An organizer of 50 volunteers who has been elected to the clinic's steering committee, he introduced the writers and actors to his team volunteers and to the dying people they work with. Talking, explaining, attending rehearsals, he became an amalgam of scriptwriter, consultant, director and mentor.

"That beginning song, it's my words," he says, "so obviously my ego is satisfied, but there's something very difficult about sitting in the audience listening to your words -- it's a mirror. I don't know what I did before AIDS. I can't remember my own damn marriage to my wife before AIDS. I can't remember what the cocktail chatter was about before AIDS. It's realization -- 'How am I living through this?' "

The show has also given him comfort, and in the peace of sitting in a darkened room, time to reflect.

"There's such a numbing process when you're exposed to so many cases, so many people, so many deaths. The show gives me an opportunity to remember, to relive and to remember everything that took place. You're looking at what you've done, going back and remembering and taking the time to appreciate the moment, to appreciate the person, to memorialize the person ...

"And this show makes me feel less alone because 110 people hopefully every night fill that place to capacity, and when they walk out, 110 more people are now dealing with the same issues I'm dealing with. And they're going, 'Wow, I had no idea. Wow, this is not going away. Wow, this could be my next-door neighbor. This probably is my next-door neighbor. We wave to each other as we leave every morning, and I've noticed the last six months he's not coming out. Wow, this could be that guy.' "

When he became part of the production, he wanted this to be the event that would bring him out of the closet. His name would appear on the program and in newspaper articles about the show. The people he grew up with in suburban Maryland, the former colleagues who he once feared would discover that he was gay, would learn who he was and hear of his pride in his work.

But as the opening neared, he began to waver. "It's the lady on the PTA I'm thinking of," he said. "She'll think, 'Yes, he's doing valuable work, but he's still homosexual!' "

He decided to remain anonymous -- in part. His name will be on the program. In the newspapers, which the lady on the PTA may read, he is simply a gay man who after months of rehearsals still cries when he hears the songs.