A black-suited boy climbs out of the casket, illuminated only by the eerie flashing of a strobe light.
"I don't want to die," he cries to a hushed audience in the crowded auditorium. "Why didn't somebody help me?"
The boy exits, the lights go on, and the spell is broken. Another performance of "The Death of O.D. Walker," the story of a teenage drug addict, has just ended.
Sponsored by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development this summer, the play aims to bring home to children and teen-agers the serious, and sometimes tragic, consequences of drug abuse.
The actors in the play, teen-agers in the city's summer jobs program, took the production to more than 4,000 youngsters in about 30 performances at public housing projects throughout the city.
Robert L. Moore, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said he used a play to deliver the message about drug abuse because he wanted to affect people "at the gut level." More traditional methods, like lectures from police officers or ex-addicts, would only bore or alienate youngsters, Moore said.
"You don't need to show (youths) little samples of drugs," said More. "They know what drugs look like."
Adds playwright Thomas Meloncon, "If you want to talk to a child of the '80s, you can't sit him down and say, 'It's bad to take drugs.'"
Over and over again, the play emphasizes the risks of drug abuse.
"Do you want to end up like that?" an actress in the audience asks the boy seated next to her, as she gestures toward the casket on the stage.
"No," the boy replies softly.
In a flashback scene to O.D.'S life, O.D.'S best friend confronts the drug addict with his mental deterioration because of drugs.
"You don't even know what day it is," the friend accuses.
"Course I know what day it is," mumbles O.D. "It's . . . uh . . . it's yesterday's tomorrow."
Friends and family try to disuade O.D. from continuing to use drugs, with no success.
"He's stinking. The clothes are falling off him, and he's shooting stuff in his arm," a friend tells O.D.'s girlfriend.
During the scene in which O.D. dies, the addict's girlfriend collapses and sobs, "This is real. Every time you turn around, somebody's dying. Drugs are killing all the young folks. They don't know how to handle it."
Teen-agers in the cast, most of whom had little acting experience before the summer, largely improvised in their roles. Their inspiration came from what they have seen on the streets, they said.
"I see at least two O.D. Walkers a night," said Gary Holmes, 18, who played Walker. "It does make me think about the play."
Charmone Williams, 15, who played a high school friend of O.D.'S said she knew four teen-agers who died of drug overdoses.
Some of the actors have tried drugs themselves, especially marijuana, but a majority said vehemently that drugs are not for them.
"I have absolutely no use for it," said James Lewis, 17, who played O.D.'S best friend.
The reality of the play apparently struck the actors as well as the audience.
Lewis recalled a woman who broke down in tears during one performance.
"She said it was so real," he said. "She had lost her 17-year-old son to an overdose the week before."
Most young people who saw the play were enthusiastic.
"It will really give you some new thoughts," said Maurice Kearns, 12, of Southeast Washington. "Don't smoke reefer."
Deneen Lewis, 13, also of Southeast, said she would tell her friends what she learned from the play "because it's important they know about these things."
The actors themselves had mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the play.
"We've done this play so many times, I figure we must have stopped somebody from using drugs," Williams, the leading man, said.
But 16-year-old Christine Hawkins, who portrayed another youth in the play, disagreed.
"Most people think it's just a play," she said. "They don't take it seriously."
"I believe this play touched a few people," Holmes said. "If I got the message across to one or two persons, then this was worthwhile."