It is an almost invisible problem, the absence of black-run theater in Washington. Gazing at the city's stages, a casual theatergoer might never suspect that something's amiss.

After all, nontraditional casting has long been a given all over town. One hears no angry shouts about violated verisimilitude when Franchelle Stewart Dorn plays Kelly McGillis's mother in "Mourning Becomes Electra" at the Shakespeare Theatre, to take but a single instance among dozens in recent seasons. And it's virtually impossible to find a theater that doesn't do African American plays or employ black artists.

But because there is still no resident professional year-round black theater company here--despite intense interest and many efforts over decades--black artists and audiences find themselves at the mercy of Washington's established (a k a "white") theaters. There are times when the best shows in town are by and about African Americans, like the recent autumn when Roger Guenveur Smith's "A Huey P. Newton Story" at Woolly Mammoth, Emily Mann's adaptation of the Delany Sisters' "Having Our Say" at the Kennedy Center, Thomas W. Jones II's "Hip 2: Birth of the Boom" at the Studio Theatre and Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky" at Arena Stage were arguably the hottest acts on the boards.

And there are other times--like now--when there is nothing at all (other than a gospel musical--a form that usually seems to be regarded as part of a parallel but distinctly separate world--closing its one-week run today at the Warner). The next-closest qualifier is "Measure for Measure" at the Washington Shakespeare Company, where director Michael Russotto is using miscegenation laws in the pre-civil-rights South to help motor the plot.

"What we've got," says Jennifer L. Nelson, producing artistic director of the sporadically active African Continuum Theatre Company (which has planned a limited season at the Lincoln Theatre), "is that somebody else decides what of our culture--what plays, what artists--are worthy of being done, and then gives it back to us."

"We have no control over our art," agrees Lisa Rose Middleton, who directed Caleen Sinnette Jennings's "Playing Juliet/Casting Othello" at the Folger Shakespeare Library last year.

Jennings says, "For most non-black Americans, having one black production in a season at their favorite theater is enough." Jennings's "Inns and Outs" will be the one African American play at the Source Theatre Company this season, to be directed by Middleton, who is Source's managing director.

In theater circles, it's hard to find anybody, black or white, who disagrees that this is a critical problem. "The theaters need to be a reflection of the city," says Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage. Without a black company, she adds, "there really isn't a stakeholder in theater here in the same way."

"It is a criminal act," says Joy Zinoman, the Studio's artistic and managing director, "that there is not a major, high-profile black-run theater in this black city."

Among artists, audiences and funders, "I have seen nothing but support for the concept of black theater in D.C.," says Imani Drayton-Hill, onetime ACT Co staffer and former managing director at Woolly Mammoth. "At least verbally."

"It's stuff that gets talked to death almost," says ACT Co's Nelson. "And so after a while, I'm like, 'Ohhh, more talk--what are we going to do?' "

The talk reached the boiling point nationally in the summer of 1996, when playwright August Wilson delivered a scalding speech to the annual conference of the Theatre Communications Group. Wilson was outraged by the fact that of America's 66 companies operating on League of Resident Theatres contracts (a useful measuring stick of professionalism, maturity and support), only one--the Crossroads Theatre Company of New Brunswick, N.J.--was black.

"From this," Wilson said, "it could be falsely assumed that there aren't sufficient numbers of blacks working in the American theater to sustain and support more theaters."

The situation Wilson decried is mirrored in Washington, where only one of the roughly three dozen members of the League of Washington Theatres is African American: ACT Co, which has not produced a play in nearly a year.

Plenty of people disputed aspects of Wilson's supercharged rhetoric, but his main thrust--More Black-Run Theater Now!--gets no argument locally. Washington has Hispanic theaters, women's theaters, a French-oriented theater, at least one Asian theater in the pipeline--but no full-season black troupe. Yet blacks are deeply involved in D.C. theater; African Americans hold prominent positions on the boards of some of the most established theaters in town, for instance, though Nelson points out that no person of color (other than Middleton) has the job of artistic or managing director--the decision-making positions in theater.

It's not as if nobody has been trying. After Robert Hooks's D.C. Black Repertory Company folded in 1976, the Rep Inc. tried to carry the torch through the 1980s and into the 1990s with scaled-back professional ambitions. In the early 1990s, the African Continuum Theatre Coalition indirectly tried to fill the void. ACT Co was created as a service organization trying to nurture other troupes, hoping in part to stimulate the kind of growth that would lead to one or more professional companies. But most of ACT Co's members--around a dozen at its peak--were content as nonprofessional community theaters.

By the mid-1990s, the American Theatre Project in Anacostia had become ACT Co's best hope. The ATP earned Helen Hayes Award nominations and generally became respected enough (despite nearly nonstop financial problems) to get reviewed in newspapers, including The Washington Post, which rising companies tend to view as critical to their visibility.

But the ATP's mission--presenting serious new dramas to an underserved (and uninterested) community--was virtually impossible to sell. The ATP, run by the ever-optimistic Ed Bishop (who could be seen on opening nights flagging down would-be patrons on a desolate, under-construction stretch of Martin Luther King Avenue SE), was kicked out of its tiny storefront space by its landlords in 1996.

Enter ACT Co. Late in 1994 a funding crunch hit the city government; along with other organizations, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities found its budget slashed. "And at that time," says John L. Moore III, ACT Co's co-founder and former executive director, "ACT Co's budget was somewhere between 35 and 40 percent single-source from the commission." (The ATP was in pretty much the same boat.)

So ACT Co changed the "Co" in its name from Coalition to Company, produced "Ghost Stories of the Blacksmith Curse" at Arena's Old Vat Theater and "Nap Does Simple's Blues" at the Stables Art Center, and seemed ready to begin the long uphill climb. The reasoning behind the change was simple: Becoming a company, rather than a service-oriented coalition, would be the most direct and effective way to advance the cause of black theater in Washington. "It would also make it easier to raise money because we had a product," Moore says, "and people would be able to buy into it--not just the funding people, but individuals."

But within a year, both Drayton-Hill and Moore left ACT Co, and the quest was back at square one. Both are unambiguous about why they left: They couldn't begin to make a living at it, and the clamor to cut public funding for the arts was at its zenith.

"Everything was just wacko," Drayton-Hill says. "We had no idea what was going to happen."

After a period during which ACT Co produced nothing and had no clear artistic leadership, Nelson--who had been acting, directing, teaching and administering in theater for 25 years, was a former artistic director of Everyday Theatre Company, had 15 years' experience with Arena's Living Stage outreach program and was vice president of ACT Co's board--took over.

In 1996, Nelson staged her own play "Torn From the Headlines" at Source Theatre (in collaboration with Everyday). The script ended up winning the Hayes Award for outstanding new play. Later in 1996, ACT Co presented Rebecca Rice's "Everlasting Arms"; like "Torn," it was a stylish, penetrating, poetic take on the very real street violence plaguing urban America. "The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown" didn't appear until the spring of 1998 at Arena's Old Vat. Last November the company had changed venues again, presenting an adaptation of "Hecuba" by poet Marilyn Nelson (Jennifer's sister) at the Living Stage on 14th Street NW. ACT Co hasn't produced since (though in August it took "Hip Hop Nightmares" to the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina).

A large part of the reason for this peripatetic odyssey is that financially, ACT Co has been hanging on by a thread. Nelson suggests that the shoe budget for Arena's recent "Animal Crackers" would be equal to an entire show budget for her, and she's only half joking. Though she had a part-time production assistant once upon a time, for now she is ACT Co's only staffer.

But things may be about to change. ACT Co and the Lincoln Theatre have been talking about establishing a limited relationship in which ACT Co would rent space from the Lincoln this season, converting the stage of the cavernous theater into a cozy black box for 100 to 200 patrons. There ACT Co is planning to present "The Century Project" (10 days of play readings representing African American work from each decade this century) in December and a 10th-anniversary celebration in May that will feature a tribute to Vantile Whitfield, onetime artistic director of the D.C. Black Rep. There has been talk that if the relationship proves fruitful, ACT Co could become a company in residence at the Lincoln.

Of course, the Lincoln's recent theatrical identity (much of which Lincoln Theatre Executive Director Jocelyn Russell has a mandate to change) is tied up with the lowbrow comedy and gospel musicals that seem to be a completely different species from the serious, complex dramatic works of August Wilson and Jennifer Nelson. (After Wilson's speech three years ago, Henry Louis Gates wrote a long piece in the New Yorker pointing to the broad comedies and simple, moralizing gospel shows--the remains of the chitlin circuit, Gates said--as an extremely popular example of black theater. It simply was not, Gates argued, Wilson's kind of theater.)

The size difference between the two organizations also may be difficult to bridge. Another possibility for ACT Co--one with fewer financial hurdles--may be to perform at Studio 1019 on Seventh Street NW, an unfinished warehouse-style space that is being upgraded this year to host a number of up-and-coming companies.

ACT Co has been busy trying to develop its infrastructure this year, landing management assistant grants from the Meyer Foundation to help formulate a strategic plan (Drayton-Hill is one of the consultants involved). The company hopes to hire a managing director by the end of the year. Part of the idea has been to stabilize the organization so that even if plans don't work out with the Lincoln, "it won't break us," Nelson says.

"I feel it's been a real critical year maybe because we didn't put a show up," she adds. Along with the board, Nelson has been forced this year to develop "a longer-range vision of what it is we want to be beyond the next production."

ACT Co is not alone in the quest to establish a steady black presence in local theater. Terry Sidney's Emerald City Productions, another peripatetic, sporadically producing (and presenting) entity that has been operating since 1994, has lately grown enough to land support from such major players as the Meyer Foundation. But Sidney is reluctant to bind his organization to the strict definition of "theater company" or submit to the grind of trying to achieve Equity status. Emerald City offered a literary event in August and a weekend run of Sidney's "Dark Corners" (a performance art piece about masculinity, sexuality and black men) at Dance Place last weekend.

The newest player is Troy Patterson, executive director of the Essential Theater Company (which takes its name from an older troupe that went defunct in 1996). The company's maiden production, Miguel Pinero's 1976 prison drama "Short Eyes," ran through August at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. Patterson says he was motivated back in 1994 by the same stark fact that ignited Wilson's speech. And by the fact that D.C. still needs a conspicuous black theater company?

"Definitely yes," he says.

As Nelson puts it, "The more people banging on the wall, the sooner the wall will fall."

It is too early to tell whether these efforts will finally lay to rest the central question--August Wilson's question, Jennifer Nelson's question, John Moore's question, Robert Hooks's question: Why is it so difficult to establish an African American company in Washington?

"I don't believe there are any easy solutions," says Drayton-Hill. "If there were, there'd be more theater here."

But a number of theories come up repeatedly. They include:

* Black work in white theaters. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some incalculable blend of conscience and economics told established theaters to reach out to African American audiences in new and aggressive ways. The goals were to be socially inclusive and relevant to the community, and to rejuvenate an audience base that was generally graying. Big money was available in the name of diversity: Baltimore's Center Stage got $1.4 million from the Reader's Digest-Lila Wallace Fund, while Arena received a $1 million grant over four years from the National Endowment for the Arts--a grant that had to be matched 3 to 1, which meant that Arena was getting $1 million a year.

This was part of what prompted Wilson's 1996 complaint: Where, he demanded, are the funds for black theaters?

Says Nelson: "I have funders ask me, 'If Arena's doing black plays and Studio's doing black plays, what's the difference between what they're doing and what ACT Co's doing? Why do we need a black theater?' " She sighs. "Sometimes it's a hard question to answer, and it makes me weary."

* The habits of black audiences. Whether it is to gospel shows at the Lincoln or the Warner, to Crossroads Theatre productions at the Kennedy Center or to "Thunder Knocking on the Door" at Arena, black audiences have grown accustomed to going to established theaters.

Woolly Mammoth playwright-in-residence Robert Alexander points out that "second-circuit" gospel and comedy crowd-pleasers at the Lincoln and the Warner lay to rest the myth that willing black audiences do not exist. "And yet," he says, "we allow Robert Hooks, Jaye Stewart, Motojicho [Vantile Whitfield's theater name], to languish and suffer and leave."

"The residents get used to seeing celebrity-type events," Sidney says--a common argument among black artists.

"It's kind of a microcosm of what happened with the post-civil-rights America," Nelson suggests. "When we were discriminated against so openly, the black community had thriving commercial districts, areas where we had our own doctors and our own lawyers, because we had to. Couldn't go to the other ones. And once the doors were opened, what we've seen is a gradual decline in black communities and black businesses. We can go to Tysons Corner or White Flint or wherever we want, so why should I go on the corner? It's the same kind of thing, I think, that is happening in the theater."

Yet everything points to a strong audience in Washington, from sheer demographics to the full houses at "Beauty Shop III" to anecdotal reports like actor Fred Strother's, who says that from his vantage point on the Studio stage, it looked as if audiences for "Seven Guitars" ran roughly 80 percent black and 20 percent white late in the run.

"Every time there's something that well done," Strother says, "they come in droves."

* Limited local opportunities. Despite the generally lauded rise in culturally diverse programming and nontraditional casting in D.C. theaters, a certain number of acting and directing gigs continue to go to out-of-towners--a fact that the local talent sometimes resents. The steady presence of Jones and the Georgia talent he often uses at the Studio is a consistent mark for this kind of criticism.

This isn't terribly different from the kinds of obstacles all actors have faced here for years; despite tangible progress this decade, some performers still talk about New York as the shortest route to Washington's top stages, especially when it comes to lead roles. But African Americans insist that the problem is more acute because their opportunities are even fewer. According to Jennings, reliance on out-of-towners "may lead to an unconscious feeling that African American actors here in Washington aren't skilled, aren't trained, aren't cosmopolitan."

In the absence of a steady company (or two or three) to nurture the local talent, the talent pool stays shallow; people get frustrated and leave. Strother and Kenneth Daugherty (a director, teacher and member of ACT Co's board) are two local actors whose experiences stretch back to the days of the D.C. Black Rep, and they testify to a steady talent drain over the years that Strother says was "huge."

"I think we lost an entire generation of artists," Jennings says.

* Funding patterns. Sidney puts forth bluntly a nearly unanimous report from the black community: "We write checks to our churches."

Drayton-Hill points out two additional financial challenges for theaters: Washington already has plenty of cultural institutions clamoring for funds, yet the region lacks some of the public and private resources available in other cities (no state government, no giant grant-giving corporations like Boeing or Coca-Cola).

"In D.C., the arts are driven by individuals," Drayton-Hill says. She gives credit to local foundations, which have a broad mandate and have been generally supportive, but adds this about individual donors: "We can pretend that this city's not racially divided, but race is race. It's always there. And I think you're going to find fewer white people who are going to be giving big money to support a black theater company, especially when black people are not giving big money to support a black theater company. And I think that's understandable."

* Leadership. It takes a village to support a theater company, but it takes a leader to motivate the village. A number of people echo what Jones says of Zinoman, Arena founder and longtime artistic director Zelda Fichandler and the Shakespeare Theatre's Michael Kahn: "They are all people about who, depending on you ask, folks will say 'We love them' or 'We hate them.' But they are visionary, they are fiery, and they are relentless in their pursuit of what they want to do."

Is Nelson the leader Washington has been waiting for? Even those who have their doubts about her are quick to say that's more pressure than any one director or any one company ought to be made to bear.

Still, Nelson and ACT Co may be closer to a breakthrough than ever. "What does it take to get over the hump?" says Drayton-Hill, speaking of ACT Co but summing up the situation in Washington since Hooks's day. "If you can get over the hump, then you move to a completely different level. You've got a whole new set of problems, but at least you move to a whole new level."