Asked how she felt after learning she'd been awarded a $10,000 grant from the Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Plays, Washington playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings, who's usually adept at inventing repartee, could only say, "Thrilled!"

She and husband Carl beamed through the Kennedy Center's luncheon last Tuesday at which the grants were announced. At 49, Jennings said, "I just feel like I'm beginning to get a handle on things."

Source Theatre Company also won a grant of $10,000 to supplement the cost of producing Jennings's new play, "Inns and Outs," which opens in early December. The playwright describes it as a seriocomic set of playlets, with each episode taking place in the same bed-and-breakfast on various major holidays.

An associate professor of theater and play writing at American University, Jennings received a Helen Hayes nomination for last season's "Playing Juliet/Casting Othello" at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre. Her children's play, "Free Like Br'er Rabbit," will run at the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab next June.

Frank Rich, New York Times columnist and former theater critic, was the guest speaker at the luncheon. He bemoaned the representation of American plays on Broadway and called the Fund for New American Plays "our hope for a serious American theater."

Six theaters and 10 playwrights were awarded a total of $200,000, underwritten by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Countrywide Home Loans Inc. The grants are designed to nurture new plays through premiere productions, and to help playwrights keep working.

The most celebrated among the 1999 recipients was chronicler of the American heartland Horton Foote, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for "The Young Man From Atlanta." His new work, a memory play called "The Last of the Thorntons," was commissioned by New York's Signature Theatre Company. Foote received $10,000, the theater $25,000. "I get discouraged," Foote told the audience, "but I do believe when I see all these faces and hear all these voices that theater will prevail."

Other playwright-theater winners were: Corey Fischer and A Traveling Jewish Theatre of San Francisco for his play "See Under: Love," based on a novel by Israeli writer David Grossman; Melinda Lopez, with Boston's Centastage for "The Order of Things," a comic fable about a Cuban family; Yehuda Hyman and San Diego Repertory Theatre for "The Mad Dancers," a tale of a San Francisco man on a mystical journey to become an 18th-century rabbi; Howard Korder and South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif., for "The Hollow Lands," which explores Manifest Destiny through the eyes of a 19th-century immigrant.

Four other playwrights won Roger L. Stevens Awards of $2,500: Christopher Cartmill for "Romeo's Dream," Jeffry L. Chastang for "Full Circle," Catherine Filloux for "Eyes of the Heart" and S.M. Shephard-Massat for "Waiting to Be Invited." The new Charlotte Woolard Award, named for the Kennedy Center's longtime director of protocol who died this year, was given to Lopez, as recognition of a "promising new voice in the American theater."

In 13 years, the fund has given out $3.6 million, resulting in the premieres of 77 plays, including Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles."

The $10,000 production grant for "Inns and Outs" will be a shot in the arm for Source, which is operating on a tight budget after its renovation. Lisa Rose Middleton, who just stepped down as Source's managing director, said that the job requires a full-time manager, not an artist who's also busy teaching drama and directing. She'll direct "Inns and Outs" for Source and is talking with Horizons about another Jennings play.

Looming on the Horizon

The Kennedy Center won't produce director Mike Malone's popular "Black Nativity" this holiday season. So the Lincoln Theatre has jumped into the breach with its own version--its first locally produced show. It will run Dec. 16-26, directed by Ozzie Jones and choreographed by Rennie Harris, with a Washington-based cast.

Though Malone's gospel-inspired "Black Nativity," adapted from the work by Langston Hughes, drew sellout crowds during its five years of runs at the Kennedy Center, a spokesman for the center said that the show didn't make a profit and was more expensive to produce each year. Malone told Backstage last week that the Kennedy Center explained its decision was the result of budget cuts, and he conceded that he was "disappointed."

Instead, the Kennedy Center will present a new commissioned children's musical in the Terrace Theater. "How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World" is based on the book by Marjorie Priceman, adapted by Wendy MacLeod, with music by Michael Silversher. It will run Dec. 17 through Jan. 1. The center's spokesman said this doesn't mean it won't mount Malone's show there again.

The Lincoln Theatre has mostly played host to touring shows and concerts that rented its renovated 1922 theater, which seats 1,250, at 1215 U St. NW. But Executive Director Jocelyn Russell, marking her first year here, announced on Friday that she intends to involve the theater more in development of the U Street corridor and to work with local nonprofit arts groups and funding organizations to put more Washington productions on the Lincoln stage. Russell, who came here from the Freedom Repertory Theatre in Philadelphia, said she intends for the Lincoln "to become the premier national center for African American and multicultural performing arts."

The African Continuum Theatre Company (ACT Co) will present a series of play readings there in December. On Oct. 25, the 15th Mayor's Arts Awards gala will be held there. The Washington Bach Consort will begin offering its musical plays for D.C school groups at the Lincoln in November.

Follow Spot

* Five high-profile women of Washington theater will discuss the state of same on Monday at 7 p.m. at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Artistic Directors Molly Smith (Arena Stage) and Joy Zinoman (Studio Theatre) will join actor-director Catherine Flye (Interact Theatre), playwright-educator Caleen Sinnette Jennings and director-teacher Lisa Rose Middleton. Tickets are $10. Call 202-783-7370.

* An early work by award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly," "Golden Child") will open the young Tsunami Theatre Company's season. The Asian American troupe will produce "FOB" (as in "fresh off the boat"), a comedy about differing attitudes of newly arrived vs. first-generation Chinese American cousins. The company is offering two-for-one tickets at tonight's final preview at Living Stage (14th and T streets NW). The show runs through Oct. 31. Call 301-656-3332.

* Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will sponsor a series of free play readings--all new works by Washington area writers such as Richard Rashke, Otho Eskin and Holly Bass--Sunday through Tuesday. Call 202-939-3939, Ext. 525.

* The Arlington-based Keegan Theatre troupe returned from Ireland last month, feeling triumphant after performing "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway. Now Keegan is readying its first show of the new season, a recently discovered Tennessee Williams work, "The Notebook of Trigorin, a Free Adaptation of Chekhov's 'The Sea Gull.' " The show previews Thursday and Friday, then runs through Nov. 14 in a commodious church basement at 1500 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington. Call 703-757-1180.

CAPTION: Katherine Smith in the 1997 production of "Black Nativity."

CAPTION: Caleen Sinnette Jennings with Kennedy Center President Lawrence J. Wilker.