ANY ARTIST worth his salt knows that paintings, poems or songs are most often created out of desperate need. So when the visionary painter who figures prominently in the new theater piece "Praise House" exclaims "Draw or die!," she means exactly what she says; art is indeed her salvation in a difficult, alienating world.

"Praise House," which had its Washington premiere Thursday at the Kennedy Center, is the latest venture by a remarkable group known as the Urban Bush Women. Founded in 1984 by the irrepressible Jawole Willa Jo Zollar -- a Kansas City-born director-choreographer who claims to have "cut her teeth on scat singing in honky tonks resplendent with hip-swiveling, shoulder-shaking, fast-talking exotic dancers" -- the ensemble plumbs deep into the folklore and spiritual traditions of Africans the world over. Blending traditional modern dance with vernacular black styles, making use of field hollers, rural chants, calls, hymns and improvisations, and reveling in the spoken word, the collective makes art that is at once specific and universal.

The name "Urban Bush Women" is easily understood when one considers the works they've made over the past six years. "Song of Lawino," scored for native African instruments, focused on tribal women. "Heat" explored the anger of the contemporary black urban female. "Praise House" is the story of a young girl, her grandmother and the worlds they are able to conjure up in order to escape from and deal with their environment.

Do not expect the work of Urban Bush Women to unfold like some episode of "Roots"; this is theater of a nonlinear, experimental, but ultimately accessible sort. URBAN BUSH WOMEN --

"Praise House." Friday and Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 4 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. 202/467-4600.