It's happening this instant. Martin Lawrence, 26-year-old comedian and actor -- Landover's own -- is inching, sliding, squeeeezing through the birth canal. For years he's been on the way. But now, right now, it's different. Oh, miracle of creation!

A star is born!

Behold this tender creature.

"I guess it's not hitting me," he says groggily, very groggily, over an early afternoon bite in the Greenbelt Holiday Inn. "I mean, something's hitting me. But I don't know quite what it is." He laughs hoarsely.

The night before, Lawrence did two shows at the Comedy Connection right up the road, the club he works whenever he visits from Los Angeles. Joint was packed. And he tore it up.

At the same moment, behind the very wall of the Comedy Connection, "House Party 2" was unspooling at the Cineplex Odeon Showcase Beltway. It was the No. 1 movie in America that weekend, and Lawrence damn near steals the thing, getting laughs with every move he makes as Bilal, the signifying deejay.

And this week he begins work on the new Eddie Murphy comedy, "Boomerang," in New York City. (Murphy falls in love with Robin Givens. She gives him the cold shoulder. Lawrence plays Murphy's buddy, who tries to keep him from abandoning his wild, womanizing ways. Smells like money.)

When Lawrence is on, all you have to do is look at him. The conspicuously cupped ears. The rubbery face, cocky smile. The lean, sugar-burning body that can't stay in one place.

Here's the strange thing. Talking about the Comedy Connection, Lawrence slips into an earnest recollection: "I worked right across the street at the gas station, car wash. I used to work in the snow, man. I used to bust my tail, man. Fingers were cold.

"And then to be back there and have people coming to see me -- and not to get their car washed -- it's really, I don't know. It's just a good feeling, man. It's a good feeling, man."

Then there was the overwhelming reaction he got at Rhythms nightclub in Landover, where he went to party after his performances. "I've been places where people came up {to me}. But I don't know that I felt it like I did last night," Lawrence says. "Because these were guys that grew up with me. And everybody wanted me to take a picture, everybody wanted me to sign this, shake this, do this ..." In other words, he got treated like a star.

Deeper still, that nightclub used to be a movie theater. And Lawrence used to work there. Cleaning up. "We would watch Bruce Lee movies," he says, grinning. "Aw man, it was so much fun. We had all the popcorn, soda we wanted. And my sisters used to work there, and our girlfriends. It was beautiful.

"Now it dawns on me -- to be in the same place I used to watch all these artists on the big screen, and here I am. It's like, 'Whoa!' "

It gets better. A short walk from this Holiday Inn, where the restaurant's waiters are so glad to meet him, is Eleanor Roosevelt Senior High School, whence Martin Lawrence graduated in 1984.

You want to talk class clown? "He could just crack you up," says Andrea Henderson, an art teacher. "He would mimic peers. He'd do the walk, he'd do the talk." Lawrence would even parody her, she says. "You couldn't really yell at him, because he always did his work."

Lawrence was so hyperactive and disruptive -- yet truly funny -- that Henderson decided to focus it. "I said, 'You really need to work out a routine. Why don't you work out a routine and do it in front of the entire class?' "

"She used to give me the last two or three minutes of class to get up and entertain," Lawrence says. "A couple of my teachers did that. 'Martin, listen, if you just calm down and let us get our studies together, and if you finish the test in time, you can get up and do what you want to do.'

"I don't know what I was doing," he says, "but I think that was most definitely the start of something."

It was Henderson who suggested that Lawrence try performing at a nightclub on open-mike night. And he did.

Lawrence doesn't forget things like that. When his acting career got moving a few years ago, he made a point of visiting and thanking his old teacher, known to her students and family as "Froggy." "He said, 'Honest to God, Froggy, if you hadn't sent me to that club, I would have never done it,' " Henderson recalls. "I said, 'Martin, you've got it.' "

Lawrence's act today is a lot raunchier than Froggy would be used to, focusing on the more, shall we say, fluid aspects of male-female relationships. But that's why God invented cable. Lawrence has a development deal with HBO for a one-hour special and possibly a series.

There is something satisfying about watching all this happen for Lawrence. And not just because he's a hometown fellow.

"He has worked hard to get where he is," says Topper Carew, who directed him in the movie "Talkin' Dirty After Dark," and who, with his wife, Alice, manages Lawrence's career. "He's not a guy who's waiting for lightning or magic to strike."

"I think as long as I stay focused and levelheaded," Lawrence says quietly, "I will be able to handle it. Because this is what I've worked for."

In the Neighborhood

One of six children, Martin Lawrence was born in Germany while his father was in the service. The family moved to New York before settling in the Dodge Park neighborhood of Landover while Lawrence was still in elementary school.

One of the ways he used to pass the time was to fight. And there's still a hardness in his eyes. "That's what we did. We hung out, had fun, and had fights," he says. "I wish you could just have simple fights like that. People don't have simple fights no more. I mean, I wish people weren't fighting out here at all. But remember when you could just have a little good ol' fistfight? Now they're shooting people up, and that's the sad part of it.

"But back when I was coming up, we just used to be cool, man. Hanging out, singing. I used to hustle -- you know, go to Safeway and A&P and carry people's bags."

Lawrence also found himself studying Richard Pryor. "No one was funnier to me than him," he says. "So I would watch him do stand-up. And then I would be out in the street, around the neighborhood, and I would start talking about people or cutting on them, and they would be laughing. And I would start to get a crowd. And girls would start to come around and I would show off even more and have them laughing."

After graduating from Eleanor Roosevelt, Lawrence threw himself into Washington's comedy scene. "I made up my mind -- it was all or nothing." To this day, he acknowledges veteran local comics Greg Poole, Chris Thomas and the Fat Doctor for their early advice and support.

On the flip side, he still holds a grudge against the downtown comedy clubs, Garvin's and the Comedy Cafe, because "these club owners didn't give black comedians a chance to headline." When the Comedy Cafe recently invited him to headline there -- and actually offered him more money than the Comedy Connection -- Lawrence turned it down.

Looking for his break, Lawrence moved to New York City for a while, working two jobs to support himself. Alas, "I wasn't getting stage time" at the clubs, he says. "I would do outside comedy in Washington Square Park and pass my jacket for money." He chuckles. "After a while, I got tired of that."

It was upon returning to Landover that Lawrence got his break. Yes, he became a contestant on "Star Search."

"I thought, 'Oh man, I'm gone! I'll never have to look back!' " Lawrence confesses. "I won one time, and then I lost. Then I was right back at home, working.

"And I would tell people where I was working maintenance, buffing floors, I would tell them, 'Look, I was on "Star Search." ' And they would say, 'Well, if you was on "Star Search," what are you doing here?' I said, 'Nobody called me yet. But it's gonna happen. It's gonna happen.' "

And in 1987, it did.

"One day I was walking around the house in my drawers, depressed, thinking how I could get out to California. Because there was an agent interested in me, but he said, 'You gotta be out in California to be seen.' And the phone rang."

It was Columbia Pictures. Someone had seen Lawrence's "Star Search" tape, and invited him to read for a supporting role on the syndicated sitcom "What's Happening Now!!" "I've been out there ever since," he says.

Lawrence spent a season on the show, then it was off the air. "I didn't get any jobs in acting until 'Do the Right Thing' came along," he says. "But that was a little while. So I went, like, broke.

"I remember, I was down to maybe a couple hundred dollars in the bank. And Shirley Hemphill called me and asked me how I was doing." Hemphill had been a star of "What's Happening Now!!" "She's very smart, she invested her money, and Shirley's just a real good woman," Lawrence says. "She asked me how was I doing. And I said, 'Not too good. I didn't know shows get canceled.' "

He talked of moving in with someone to cut down on living expenses, but Hemphill tried to talk him out of it. "She was like a big sister: 'I don't want you moving in with nobody. You need your privacy.' And the next day I opened my mailbox and she'd sent me $500." Lawrence pauses. "Just wanted to cry, man. I never forgot it. Never will. Never will."

When he asked Hemphill how he could pay her back, "she goes, 'Look, I just want you to help some other young comic out.' Richard Pryor helped her out. You know what I'm saying? It's a chain."

In Spike Lee's 1989 film "Do the Right Thing," Lawrence played a mush-mouthed homeboy who, with his three buddies, pretty much did nothing but waste time and hassle the neighborhood drunkard. It was a tiny part. But Lawrence apparently made quite an impact on the set.

As actor John Turturro recalled in the "Do the Right Thing" companion book: "It was a jovial set, even during the riot scene. Martin kept us laughing throughout. Danny {Aiello} made him do his impersonations about 150 times. The poor guy was burnt out. ... 'Martin, Martin,' Danny would say. 'One more time. Do Sugar Ray Leonard.' "

In Hollywood

There has never been a better time to be a young black man in Hollywood. Which isn't saying a lot, really. But check out the movie career of Martin Lawrence. He's about to shoot his fifth picture, and all of them have been directed by African Americans. After "Do the Right Thing," he was in Reginald Hudlin's original "House Party," then was top-billed in Carew's "Talkin' Dirty." "House Party 2" was directed by Doug McHenry and George Jackson, and Hudlin is at the helm of Murphy's "Boomerang."

This is unprecedented. While the black film boom has been one of the most widely reported cultural stories of 1990, no one has focused on the opportunity it's providing a new generation of character actors. What would Hollywood have done with Lawrence and Samuel L. Jackson and Tyra Ferrell and Phyllis Yvonne Stickney and Bill Nunn, if not for the black directors who first allowed them to stretch out?

"When I was doing 'What's Happening Now!!' I would work with a Korean director, a white director and occasionally a black director, but he was always being told what to do by the white executive," Lawrence says. "And I could never get off. I never could bring to 'What's Happening Now!!' what I had in me. Plus it was my first acting ever, so I had to go by what they said.

"But once I was able to get with Spike and the Hudlins and Doug and George and Topper -- people who understand black culture because they're black, and understand, with respect to me being a comedian, that I would probably know what's funnier before they would -- it allowed me to go. So I've been truly fortunate. And it's going to be very hard for me when I work with a director that don't allow me to do what I do. Let's just hope that's not around the corner, because I probably would be fired." He laughs. "Because I won't do what they say if I don't feel it's right."

Lawrence seems to have a kinship with other hot young comedian-actors such as Chris Rock ("Saturday Night Live") and Tommy Davidson ("In Living Color"). In fact, Davidson, who also got his start in the District, turned up at the Comedy Connection to wish Lawrence well. "We try to support one another," Lawrence says. "If I'm doing a show somewhere, Chris Rock will come out. If Chris Rock is doing a show somewhere, I'll come out.

"I think we are realizing that it's a good time for us," he says. "And it's not a time for us to slack. It's a time for us to start grinding even more, to get where we want to be, because it hasn't always been that easy for a black man in entertainment."