CHICAGO -- After a bloody gang fight in the first act of "Project!," a gritty musical documentary that opens at the Kennedy Center this week, actress Maria McCray cries out desperately:

"My son is dead. A sweet, innocent boy who never hurt anybody. But they hurt him. They hurt him to death. And for what? He didn't belong to a gang. The gangs didn't want him because he was deaf. I blessed my son's deafness because I thought it would keep him safe. But now he is dead."

These aren't meaningless script lines for McCray, a resident of Cabrini-Green, Chicago's most notorious public housing project. She has lived them. And her voice resonates with believability.

"Just looking out my window, I've seen people that I know killed. People shot dead as they tried to cross the street," she said in an interview. Her own son, Trulawn, then 14, was "beaten up pretty bad" one day on the way to acting class because he happened to be wearing the colors of a neighborhood gang.

"Project!," which begins a week-long run at the Eisenhower Theater Tuesday, is the story of Cabrini-Green, a high-rise complex just north of downtown Chicago that is home to 13,500 of the city's poorest people. Told in the words of its residents, it is a grim, no-holds-barred account of being poor, black and disenfranchised in 20th-century America. Its promoters call the show "A West Side Story for Now."

Shootings, gang warfare and illegitimacy are everyday facts of life here. "We're living in a war zone," one resident complains. "To get where I'm at, you've gotta be willing to kill," boasts a flashy young man passing out greenbacks to hero-worshiping youngsters. "There's a lot of fathers here. But there aren't many daddies," a woman says.

In many ways, "Project!" is the story of life at the bottom in any American inner city. "It has a universal message. It's not speaking just for Cabrini-Green. It's speaking for every project in the United States," said cast member Valarie Tekosky. "As long as there are projects, we're all going to be part of Cabrini-Green because we're all black and poor."

What sets this production apart is that not only its lyrics and story but much of its cast come from Cabrini-Green itself. They give the show an electrifying energy, and a strong point of view. Their message is simple: The people of Cabrini-Green are like anyone else struggling to survive.

"The show confronts you with the fact that Cabrini-Green isn't just a headline. It is people," said Carroll McCarren, general manager of Free Street Theater, which developed the show. "They have kids. They have families. They go to the supermarket. They worry about the drug problem. It's a rude awakening for some people to realize this."

Bernard Hudson-Bey, a talented young singer discovered in the project, said he feels better after every performance because "we get to express ourselves and express all the bad times we've had. The show depicts life that is going on and says, 'It's time for a change.' "

Residents also see a good side. "In Cabrini-Green we support one another. Everybody helps each other," said Shalonda Cooper, a vocalist who has lived all of her 18 years in the project. "Someone runs out of money, they can go down the hall -- even if the whole floor gets food stamps -- and say, 'Can I have a couple of chickens?' People will say, 'You can have them, sure.' That's how we work."

Now in its fifth year, "Project!" has played to rave reviews in London, Scotland and a dozen U.S. cities. But its Chicago performances are infrequent, partially because the size of its cast (25) and set demand a good-sized theater. And if it weren't for a 1986 television broadcast, few Cabrini-Green residents would have had the opportunity to see it.

"It seems the further we go away from home the better we're received," complained one cast member.

The appearance at the Kennedy Center originally was to be part of a month-long Chicago arts festival, featuring more than a dozen groups, in the nation's capital. The festival fell apart, however, when organizers were unable to raise the needed $3 million to finance it.

Now only two other Chicago groups are to perform along with "Project!": the Hubbard Street Dance Company, from June 12 to 17; and the Goodman Theatre production of "She Always Said, Pablo," from June 21 to July 22.

"Project!" is the brainchild of Patrick Henry, the director of Free Street Theater who died of cancer a year ago. "Patrick felt since we're this close to Cabrini-Green, we should become their community theater," said McCarren. "He wanted to go in and develop a show about the community. In doing so he'd ask each resident, 'What is it you'd like to say about your community?' He wanted to get beyond the headlines -- the murders and all that goes on -- to the core of the community."

There were many skeptics. Henry and most of his staff were whites trying to work in a tough, all-black community. The show nevertheless opened in December 1985 for what everyone thought would be a two-week run. Tricia Alexander was listed as lyricist, Douglas Lofstrom as musical director and Donald Douglass as choreographer.

But Douglass, now the show's director, said it "basically was written by residents and Patrick. Trish would listen to the tapes, constantly going back to the residents and saying, 'Is this what you meant?' ... We didn't write it. Everything was created by the residents, but molded and shaped by the artistic staff."

The production uses videotaped interviews of Cabrini-Green residents to set the agenda. They're played between song and dance numbers on 60 television monitors, stacked atop one another in tall banks, rising like apartment complexes.

The interviews show a people of optimism and great dignity; the soul, rap, gospel and blues songs show their vulnerability, sorrow and defiance. It is clear from the opening scenes that this is no fluff musical, as the following song, delivered in to a pounding rap beat, illustrates:

Now I'm certain that you've heard of us

Or seen us on TV.

'Cause our corner of the world

Has notoriety.

You may know about the killin's

And all that stuff.

But that's only half the story --

And it's not enough.

Cabrini-Green is described in the most unflattering terms. "You say Cabrini-Green and they just freak out. It's like a state of mind," one resident says in a video interview. "You see my address and you know everything about me," complains another.

The first half of the show describes the turmoil in Cabrini-Green; the second half focuses on the black woman, and the difficulty of finding "a good man." In "Women's Blues," Valarie Tekosky sings:

I gave him two hundred dollars

And he never gave me nothin' in return.

Now he wants my aid check.

Seems like I never learn.

Beyond a plea for more attention and understanding, "Project!" doesn't offer any solutions to the problems of Cabrini-Green. "The only thing the show does is state the facts," said Douglass.

This isn't enough for some people, he added. "People want us to say, 'We've changed the community.' But you can't change the community. You can only change the people."

The biggest change has come in members of the cast and those who have attended Free Street Theater workshops, which are held six days a week. The show has raised their expectations. Cooper, 18, now wants to be a recording artist. McCray, who appears with her son Trulawn in the show, wants to become a professional actress. Lambus F. Dean, 41, is trying to launch a late-blooming singing career.

"Once people have been enlightened in this cast," said Catherine Stephens, one of the principal vocalists in the production, "they are more enthusiastic about themselves. They're more enthused about life. And they want to do better.".