Actors say kids and animals will upstage them every time. Add Gen. Colin Powell to that list.

The four-star attraction last night at Ford's Theatre was -- even wearing a suit -- the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell, attending the premiere of "Black Eagles," got the kind of attention usually reserved for, say, Madonna. People lined up for his autograph at intermission; everybody wanted to shake his hand, to get close up, that sort of thing.

Powell even got the first standing ovation of the night. In one of those life-imitates-art-imitates-life moments, the characters onstage offered a toast at an imaginary reception for Powell -- which prompted a rousing real-life salute to the man sitting in Row G, Seat 111.

The actors never really had the spotlight. Okay, they got a standing ovation. But the whole night was about real heroes, past and present.

The play is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black unit of Army fighter pilots allowed to fly in combat. Sent overseas in 1943, the Black Eagles set the foundation for integration of all the armed forces.

"I've known about the Tuskegee Airmen just about all my life," said Powell. "They have been part of my whole military life and career." Powell, who received another round of applause when he was formally introduced after the performance, gave the cast his critique: thumbs up.

Judging by the applause, his opinion was shared by last night's audience, including Powell's wife, Alma; Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, who led the Black Eagles during World War II and went on to become the first black general in the Air Force; Sens. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.); FBI Director William Sessions; Anna Perez, press secretary to Barbara Bush; and perhaps the harshest critics of all: 25 members of the Tuskegee Airmen.

"I don't pretend to be a theater critic," said Robb. But he said, it's the salty language that "one would associate with the service."

Wait just a minute there, senator.

Philip Lee, president of the Airmen's East Coast Chapter, begs to differ.

"I was a flight instructor," said Lee. "I never used language like that. That's today's language. I never used it then. Still don't."

That settled, the airmen, wearing bright red blazers, basked in their new-found recognition. The play, which was first presented in New Jersey last year, is getting national attention. And George Lucas, director of "Star Wars," is planning to bring the story to the screen.

"It's long overdue," said Davis, who just published an autobiography about his experiences. "For the first time, I'm standing before audiences and discussing some of the events of my life that weren't too happy at the time, but carry a lesson for some of the people who don't know about it."

Ira O'Neal served under Davis during the war. "He was our godfather," he said. "We were just young fellas. Our ears weren't even dry yet. He's the one that really set us on our way."

"They all still have a tenacity about them," said Brigadier Gen. Marcelite Harris, who was named the first black woman general last year. "I can just see them back in those days, fighting segregation, saying, 'We can fly! Give us a chance.' They wanted to bomb the hell out of the enemy."

Harris, like Powell, was also out of uniform last night. Some special reason, perhaps, in honor of the airmen?

"I don't know about the chairman," said the Air Force general, wearing white pearls and bugle beads under her white fox coat. "But I really wanted to wear a drop-dead gorgeous outfit."