By William A. Sievert; William A. Sievert, former arts editior of Books & Arts magazine, is a contributor to many national publications. CAPTION: Picture, Lyn Dyson, a veteran stage actor who has been working to build The Rep Inc., hopes to see it return to being an Equity house. Bill Snead It is hot -- blisterly hot -- even so many miles from the core of the city. The weather has been this way ever since the atomic bombs began dropping 20 years ago. "May I please come inside, Mrs. Childs?" begs a tired-looking man in a heavy winter coat. He shields his eyes from the sun, wincing under a bold beam of light shining directly on his head. "Oh, uh, certainly," replies the nervous young woman who has been studiously observing him on a large chrome screen in her living room. The room is appointed completely in chrome: the viewing screen, two chrome chairs placed up-side-down on the floor, and a chrome communications console that closely resembles the movie robot R2D2. "Do you always keep your door locked, Mrs. Childs?" the entering stranger asks. He mops the sweat from his brow and gazes with curiosity at the decor. "In a city of 20 million, it's wise," says the woman, staring skeptically at the overdressed stranger. "But you live quite far from the central city." "Didn't you take the monorail?" she asks him. "Actually, I walked much of the way. I wanted to get the feel of the place. There are so many splendid towers . . . Um, when I was talking to you outside I wasn't sure you wanted to rent me the room." "I must tell you, the rent is high --50 credits." "That will be fine." "Oh." The woman is disapointed. "Would you care to take a seat?" "Why yes, thank you, Mrs. Childs." The stranger plops his lanky frame amid the protruding legs of one of the up-side-down chairs. From 10 rows in front of the stage in a small, hot rehearsal room, a booming voice interrupts the couple's dialogue: "Cut!" Is is the voice of Jaye Steart, 31-year-old artistic director of The Rep Inc. Like the players on stage, he is sweating from the midsummer Washington humidity. He is also frowning. Stewart would like to include John Jake's science-fiction drama Stranger With Roses among this season's offerings at The Rep, Washington's struggling black theater company that has rooted itself in the ashes of the old D.C. Black Repertory Company. But he is not pleased with the way two of his top young acting apprentices, David Talley and Billie Taylor, are handling their scene: "Dave, at first your sense of unfamiliarity with your environment was good, but then you sat down in that chair as if you knew it. Your character wouldn't have the slightest idea how to negotiate that thing. Remember, the stranger is from a past time trying to fit into a new time. "Billie, what you and David are doing with the dialogue is technically correct, but there's no emotional buying and selling going on. Every line is coming off the same. You need to build on your suspicion, your mutual distrust." After a second "run-through" of the scene, Jaye Stewart is much happier. Talley and Taylor have given convincing readings of their lines, and Talley has demonstrated a skillful awkwardness in entangling himself in the odd chrome chair. "See the difference?" Stewart asks his class of seven women and five men. "Look," he says, tugging alternately at the bill of his blue baseball cap and the strands of his long handlebar mustache. "I know you hate this play [nervous laughter from the students]. You're having a hard time relating to it. But the challenge is in the unfamiliarity. "I could give you all a scene set at a Georgia Avenue bar, and you'd do great with that because it would be familiar to you. But I want you to be able to handle any role that comes your way. If you want to work, you'd better be prepared to convince a director of your versatility. "In this play, the environment is changed, but the people go through the same trips, the same experiences you do. This is 20 years from now when money has become so tight that it's a credit. Treat the line about the 50-credit rent as if each credit is threee or four thousand of today's dollars. Don't leave it to the audience to pick up on the frightening economic statement. Make them grasp it. Do some imagination-stretching. That's what theater is all about." Stewart works his students hard. This evening's class, an intermediate-level workshop, already has run four hours with only one five-minute break. And Stewart still wants to try the scene once more with two other student actors in the roles of Mrs. Childs and the stranger. "The goal of our training program," he says later, "is to develop professional actors. If our people want theatrical careers, they have to know the kind of grind involved in giving eight performances a week." Like its predecessor, The Rep Inc. is both a training facility for aspiring black actors and a resident theater with a year-round lineup of plays and other entertainment productions by black artists. Like its predecessor, The Rep charges its students no tuition. But, unlike the original D.C. Black Repertory Company, today's Rep suffers from a lack of public visibility, particularly in the white community. To many Washingtonians, The Rep is no more than a memory of a time nearly a decade ago when blacks began rediscovering their heritage and proudly proclaiming and sharing it through drama, dance, music and poetry. The old D.C. Rep, as it came to be known, was one of many theatrical children of the '60s -- an era of revolutionary theater, feminist theater, gay theater and black theater. Between 1966 and 1971, the year the D.C. Rep was launched, a score of black repertory companies cropped up from coast to coast. A few would survive the decade of the '70s; most would fall victim to changing tastes and fashion. In 1971, however, it seemed to Robert Hooks, a Washington native who had achieved stardom in the cops-and-robbers television series "NYPD," that his home town was lagging behind the times when it came to black theater. Regional theater was flourishing here with the Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center was about to open and several small experimental theater companies were drawing steady audiences of hip young whites. But, despite the District's large black population, there was no black theater here. That bothered Hooks, who had been a founder of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York and was involved in the formation of a half-dozen other black troupes around the country. Hooks had high ambitions for his D.C. Black Rep. It was to be a professional equity house where all the players (a dozen at peak) would be paid union wages. And it was to be a serious drama school that would draw its students from the inner city and develop them into professionals. "If the theater were just a black repertory company, it would be useless," Hooks said in announcing the company's formation in February 1971. "I want it to be much more than that, because there is no place where the talented young black can go and study for nothing. The reason we're here is to create some good, legitimate black images -- something that hasn't been done before, something much more important than 'Super Fly.'" It took Robert Hooks nearly two years to raise the half-million dollars required to start D.C. Rep. He set aside his own lucrative acting career to become a full-time fund-raiser, lobbying foundations and private sources alike for contributions. He gradually came up with enough support to refurbish the old Colony movie house on Georgia Avenue at Faragut Street into a 500-seat legitimate theater. A troupe of actors was put together, teachers were hired, and classes began in 1972. In October of that year, D.C. Rep launched its first student production, Imamu , three one-act plays by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Two months later, on Dec. 8, the professional troupe performed its first drama, the world premiere of Evan Walker's Coda . That production received praise from local critics, The Post calling it "outstanding" and "brilliant." The time, it seemed, was right for Robert Hook's dream. Baraka came to the theater to read his poetry at a fund-raiser; the Kennedy Center invited the company to come across town and perform a variety production call The Blacks at the Eisenhower; and before long D. C. Rep had expanded to the point that it needed to open a second theater -- a full-time training center and rehearsal hall -- closer to the heart of town at Georgia and New Hampshire avenues. It particularly delighted Hooks when white Washingtonians from west of Rock Creek Park began attending the theater's productions. "While his primary goals were to train black people in theater and to document black history and lifestyles for the black community, Hooks also knew that the appeal of black theater is universal," says Lyn Dyson, a veteran stage actor who handles public relations for The Rep Inc. "He wanted his theater to create better understanding among people regardless of ethnic background, and that is something we still include among our goals today." To some white theatergoers in particular, the first experience of a Rep performance came as a shock. Such early productions as Imamu and Home Cookin' by Clay Goss called upon audiences to participate: to talk back to the players on stage and to give testimony as if they were attending an old-fashioned church revival. Some white (and some black church groups) were similarly stunned by the salty and racially angry language in the works of Baraka, James Baldwin and other contemporary black playwrights. But other white Wasingtonians thrived on the experience and continued as boosters of the theater until the end. The first sign of trouble came in June 1976 when the D.C. Rep unexpectedly shut down the Colony and incorporated all of its activities into the smaller 140-seat rehearsal theater at 3710 Georgia Ave. Then, in November, at the end of the run of Gwendolyn Brooks's critically acclaimed collage of poetry, Among All This You Stand Like a Fine Brownstone , Robert Hooks conformed rumors that had been circulating in local theatrical circles. He was folding the Equity company immediately. The cost of operating both the professional troupe and the school has grown to $465,000 a year, and he had not been able to raise enough money to continue. Not surprisingly, Hooks was bitter. Although three other black companies had started up in the city during the D.C. Rep's short life (the Black American Theater, the Black Drama Collective and the Paul Robeson Theater), Hooks accused Washington of being "complacent" about black culture. "We have not been able to convince the people in this town that black culture is needed," he said at the time. "Washington is a traditional town. The importance of culture is not felt the way ti should be, and the priorities here need to be reshaped." Paula Gower, a New York playwright and drama critic who has written frequently on regional and community theater, notes that while Hooks's criticisms of Washington were undoubtedly legitimate in 1976, they applied to many other American cities as well. "It may sound chauvinistic, but the American theater was -- and basically still is -- centered in New York and Los Angeles. That's where the money and audiences for theater have always been, and that's where the talent always has gone. "It is not at all surprising that black theater could do well in New York, as the Negro Ensemble Company always has done, or in California, where the West Coast Black Repertory Company has thrived, while the D.C. Rep, which was a very impressive troupe, and those black theaters that followed in its footsteps in Washington, perished." (With the recent disbanding of the Robeson, The Rep Inc. again finds itself the only year-round black theater company in Washington). Gower adds, however, that those black theaters still in existence today have a better chance of surviving than ever before. "In just the last few years, this country has experienced a tremendous explosion of interest in all kinds of theater. Regional theaters are booming in such cities as Louisville, Minneapolis, Seattle, and, of course, Washington, with the Arena Stage . . . I think it bodes well for such established black theaters as The Rep, companies that have learned from their lean years." "The timing was terrible," remembers Jaye Stewart, who was with the old D.C. Rep almost from the beginning. "It was inevitable, but it was unfortunate the way the closing was handled. "The '76-'77 season was to be our biggest and busiest yet. We were scheduled to go to Lagos, Nigeria, in February with Brownstone to represent the United States at the international FESTAC celebration of the black arts, and we were going to be doing Langston Hughes's Simply Heavenly here at the same time. But suddenly, much of our public thought we were gone." The public impression was wrong. Although Hooks was pulling out, about 30 core staff members has decided to carry on on a smaller scale. "There was no animosity between Robert and those of us who wanted to continue," says The Rep's administrative director Carline Smith. "He had put in so many years and the fund-raising aspects had so drained him that he felt he needed to move on, to put more time into his own acting career. He was very supportive of our plan to continue and has served us as a consultant ever since." As Hooks was packing up for Hollywood, having accepted an offer to appear in the movie "Airport 1977," his D.C. Rep was hurriedly being reincorporated under the moniker of The Rep Inc. The reincarnated Rep would no longer be an equity company -- all salaries were dropped -- and expenses were cut by a staggering 1,000 percent. Yet the important 1976-77 season continued, scarcely missing a beat. The now-volunteer company -- some of its members advanced acting students and some of them professionals who took outside acting roles or part-time jobs unrelated to their careers in order to support themselves -- kept its commitment in Nigeria. And Simply Heavenly , as directd by Jaye Stewart, opened to favorable reviews only a few weeks behind schedule. "We found that we were able to put on the same quality of productions with an annual budget of $50,000 that used to cost a half-million," Stewart says. The biggest savings came in salaries and the lower overhead of the smaller theater, though the costs of sets and costumes also were trimmed significantly. In the three and a half years since the reincorporation, The Rep Inc. has focused its attention on its student-training program, but it also has been struggling to return to the prominence it had in the Washington theatrical scene in the early 1970s. With the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and (until recently) the CETA program, The Rep's budget has gradually increased to some $75,000 a year. That has made it possible for the company to stage three major productions each season, as well as to travel to the Lincoln Center in New York last year to perform Charles Russell's Five on the Black Hand Side at the Black Theater Festival U.S.A. (Rep members particularly enjoy such performances outside of their home turf, because when they perform away they get paid.) The Rep also brings guest artists to its brown stucco Georgia Avenue theater -- most recently the LaVerne Reed Dancers -- and presents an ambitious Living Writers Series. The writers series annually fetes a major black playwright or author, with the writer present for the festivities. The honorees thus far have included Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. In addition, last February The Rep company performed with the distinguished actor Oscar Brown Jr. in 'The Narative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. "We've been able to make a little money go a long way, and we've had a lots of successes on the artistic end," Lyn Dyson says. "But basically what we have here is artists, not businessmen. With such a tight budget and so little time for and knowledge about fund-raising, some things haven't been accomplished. "Look at Arena Stage, for example. They can announce their entire season of plays the previous spring. But we often don't know if we'll have the money to do a play until shortly before the time tickets are to go on sale. t So we can't guarantee a subscriber series. And we can't afford newspaper or television advertising, so we've had to rely on public-service announcements and small-print newspaper listings." Last season, the average Rep production cost $7,000 to mount, a figure that staff members anticipate will rise to nearly $10,000 this year. A ticket to a Rep production usually runs $7. That's less than one would pay at most live theaters in the Washington area, but the price still seems stiff to many of the inner-city blacks The Rep considers its primary audience. Despite the obstacles, Dyson believes The Rep has done "all right in getting the word out to the black community," particularly the black middle class. "We've concentrated our promotion on church and civic groups, and their response at the box office has been great. (The Rep offers less expensive rates to certain groups.) We also get some white people at our performances, but we know we could do better if we had stronger visibility." "Considering Washington's nature, we get good community support," says Jaye Stewart, who taught drama at the University of Maryland before joining The Rep. "Washington is a great consumer of entertainment, but it has never cared much about producing it. It loves the big star-studded, packaged spectacles that come to the Kennedy Center and the National, and it loves to boogie at the Cap Center. But it has rarely come unglued over a new drama written by a local playwright or produced by a local company. I think that is gradually changing, and we want to do everything possible to bring about the change." In the months ahead, The Rep hopes to increase its budget significantly through a major fund-raising campaign in the local business community. To that end, it has beefed up and expanded (from 11 to 34 members) its board of directors, adding educators, lawyers and local civic and business leaders, including officials of IBM, Xerox and the Riggs National Bank. One of the first welcome results of the campaign came last spring when the Riggs Bank bought out the entire house for a performance of Sojourner's Journey , and turned most of the tickets back to The Rep to be distributed free to senior citizens' organizations. "Eventually," says Lyn Dyson, who kept his own acting in tune this summer by performing in the National Black Touring Circuit production of Seasons' Reasons , "we want to return to being an equity house. That's our big goal. We figure it will cost close to $1 million a year, but we've become much more public-relations-conscious and business-oriented, and we think we can do it." Meanwhile, the 1980-81 season is shaping up as The Rep's most ambitious ever. Four productions already have been set for the fall and winter months, three of them dramas: Touch Me in the Morning , Chicago playwright G. E. Wallace's story about a Vietnam War veteran returning to his family; Knives , Washington playwright Terrence Cooper's new inner-city thriller, and two one-act science-fiction plays by Theodore Cogswell and John Jakes. The fourth offering, whic will kick off the season in late October or early November, is Langston Hughes's dramatic gospel musical, Tambourines to Glory . The musical is a genre The Rep has rarely touched. "It's not that we have anything against musicals -- we're capable of doing them -- but they are what people have become conditioned to expect from black theater," Stewart says. "We train all of our actors to be able to audition for musicals, but we don't want our people to be trapped by them. The larger houses -- particularly the Kennedy Center -- don't like to gamble on dramas. Roger Stevens will bring Bubblin' Brown Sugar to town once a year before trying a black drama." For the most part, The Rep has had a good relationship with other Washington theater companies. It has exchanged players and shared staff members and resources with New Playwrights' and Back Alley. Some of its performers have had roles at Arena Stage and the Folger. And The Rep is currently negotiating with officials of the Kennedy Center to use its new Terrace Theater on a regular basis, although, Stewart says, "the Terrace hasn't been promoted very well so far. Sometimes it seems almost as remote as we are on Georgia Avenue." There is some resentment among people at The Rep that their relationship with the Kennedy Center has not been stronger. "The best way for any of our people to go to work at the Kennedy Center, or Arena Stage for that matter, is to go to New York and audition for them there," Stewart says. "That's what Charlie Brown [a former actor with The Rep who was nominated for a Tony award this year for his performance in home ] did. But we don't want all our students running off to New York. There should be more opportunities for them here." A major problem, he says, is that The Rep Inc. has not been an Equity company. "If you don't carry a union card, you're not considered professional. We prepare professional actors, but their opportunities are still limited because their work for us is considered amateur." Although officials of other local theaters contacted have nothing but praise -- on the record -- for The Rep Inc.'s work, several admit they have never attended a Rep performance. And one official of Arena Stage says privately, "The quality of the acting ad the overall quality of the productions vary greatly from show to show. Of course, that's to be expected when you are primarily an acting school and your funds are limited. But for the theatergoer it means taking a bigger chance than he would elsewhere. "The Rep's best productions rate favorably with the best theater in Washington. As a matter of fact, I think they've received more rave reviews in the press than we have. But my impression from attending several of their productions over the years is that, while they are doing a respectable job and filling a particular need in this community, their work only occasionally rises to a truly professional caliber." Rep leaders, however, point proudly to numerous actors who started with the company and have gone on to successful hos-business careers. Besides Charlie Brown, there is Kene (pronounced Kenny) Hokiday, who starred in the recent network television series "Carter Country." Native Washingtonian Ronald (Smokey) Stevens has performed in the Broadway production of Bubblin' Brown Sugar . Lyn Whitfield and Carl Maillard have been touring with the road company of For Colored Girls . . . Others have had roles in various professional productions of The Wiz . In the past four years, some 200 students have enrolled at The Rep. The majority of them are still involved wit the company in one capacity or another because, unlike most schools, The Rep does not ever formally graduate its students. The young actors decide for themselves when they are ready to begin seeking paying employment in outside productions. They may remain with the company as long as they wish, taking advanced workshop classes, trying out for available parts in Rep productions and -- in some cases -- becoming a part of its evergrowing staff of actor-teacher-administrators. About 30 new students are enrolled twice a year, following public auditions advertised widely in Washington's black community. "We receive 400 to 500 applications a year for a total or about 60 openings,"Stewart says. "At times it's overwhelming, but the applicants tend to weed themselves out. When we tell the candidates how much work and time commitment is required, about half of them decide they're not really all that interested. "When they first come through the door, I give them a monologue to learn, and they must learn it. Those who don't, aren't accepted. That cuts the number of applicants down a lot more. We want only serious-minded, career-oriented, energetic people." Once enrolled, the students must first take an intensive 18-week, three- to five-hour-a-day-course in fundamental theater exercises. Many of them refer to the course as "boot camp." And before they are awarded even the smallest role in any of The Rep's productions, they must complete a full year of training -- mostly at night and on weekends, since almost all of the students work full-time day jobs. The training includes not only classes in acting but also workshops in mime, dance and such technical duties as lighting, cue-writing and set design. Besides the inherent value of any well-ronded education, there is a practical reason for the variety of The Rep's training. "Except in New York, perhaps, there aren't enough acting jobs available to take care of all the people we have been training. But there are plenty of technical jobs. And if a young black actor knows the technical side of the theater arts, that can open a lot of doors." The Rep also offers specialized courses in filmmaking, radio production and theater administration, as well as a Reader's Theater that assists new playwrights in developing their scripts. "Washington has seen a surfeit of new black poets, but a scarcity of playwrights," Stewart says. "We offer playwrights an opportunity to have their works read and evaluated by actors in front of an audience." Although it is constantly adding new programs, The Rep's primary mission remains the same it has been ever since Robert Hooks first announced the formation of the D.C. Black repertory company -- to develop professional black actors. "You probably can't get any better training than you get here," says David Talley, the young actor who this evening has been playing the role of the stranger in John Jake's science-fiction play. "The workshops are extremely demanding mentally and physically. By the time we're finished about midnight, I'm completely drained." Talley first studied acting with the West Coast Black Repertory Company in 1971. He came to love acting but decided not to pursue it professionally because he thought it "a dangerous, tricky business" in which "there is not much of a talent gap between people who become stars and people who spend their lives working in small community theaters." So Talley dropped out of acting and earned his law degree at Stanford University, moving to Washington three years ago to take his present job as a lawyer with the Federal Railroad Administration. A short time later, he learned of The Rep through a public-affairs announcement on a local television talk show, and he decided to reinvolve himself in theater. At 28, Talley is one of the older, more experienced student actors at The Rep. The youngest is 17 (the minimum age for admission), the oldest is 42 and most -- like Talley's acting partner Billie Taylor -- are in their early twenties. Taylor, a clerk-typist with the Federal Communications Commission, learned about The Rep after becoming involved in the theater department at Prince George's County Community College, where she was a student. Taylor's goal is clear and her attitude confident. "In another year or two I want to go to New York and be a professional stage actress. I prefer the stage to films or television because live audiences are more demanding. That means it's more work, but it's also more satisfying." Does she dream of stardom? "Some young actors won't admit it, but I think about fame every day -- especially when my stamina is giving out. It brings my stamina back. It makes me keep pushing myself to work harder."