On July 25, Quiet Fire begins a three-week run of "Prisoner of Second Avenue." The performances will be in the basement of St. Joseph's Catholic Church. For more information, call 548-0010.

A voice penetrates the nearly empty room: "Again."

"It hurts all of us," the second voice responds, "that's why we're here -- to do something about it."

Six people are rehearsing a play in the basement of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Alexandria, and director Joseph Walker is not satisfied.

"Again," Walker orders.

"It hurts all of us," the second voice repeats, as cast members fidget on folding chairs and await their cues.

On the edge of the group, a young man observes carefully. Greenfair Moses is watching a dream unfold.

The dream is the Quiet Fire Repertory Company -- Moses' baby and the first all-black acting troupe in Virginia.

A tender smile fuffles Moses' broad face as he unravels the history -- and the dream -- of Quiet Fire.

"I want to take a ghetto company out of the ghetto that can act on anybody's stage," Moses says, glancing around the low-ceilinged room cracked with peeling paint.

Moses' eyes dart automatically to the make-shift stage in front of him, and he says, "Joseph Walker will help get us there."

Laughter disturbs the room. "Why," booms the bearded Walker, "did you do that?"

Apprehension spans the offending actor's face, and he seems suspended, in agony, waiting for Walker's next move.

Then Walker's laughter again -- this time encircling the actor in a bearhug of guidance. "Again," Walker says.

"That's why we're here -- to do something about it."

Walker, who is directing the company in Neil Simon's "Prisoner of Second Avenue," is both a playwright and a director. He has won the prestigious Tony and Obie awards and is the author of the Broadway hit "River Niger."

Moses and Walker are studies in contrast -- Walker is a gregarious raconteur while Moses is a gentle man, a listener -- but they are both here to do something about black theater.

"For every Uncle Tom's Cabin," promises Walker, a Falstaff-like character wearing in a brilliant orange dashiki, "a River Niger must be written."

"River Niger" tells the story of a black soldier who returns from Vietnam to his family in Harlem. He finds himself under pressure from both his family and his old street-gang buddies, who have turned into revolutionaries.

Critics have heralded the play as a sensitive examination of the psychic state of black America.

Walker and Moses complain that the literary and dramatic communities in this country have so embalmed the stereotype of the black man that it is nearly impossible to stage -- and finance -- a black production that does not evolve around a lazy black man, who is interested only in the blues and gospel and neglectful of his family duties.

"I am proud to be a black man," Walker says, "but not one moment passes where I am not reminded in some way that I am a second-class citizen." p

Theater, both Walker and Moses insist, assuming a classical Greek attitude toward the instructive power of drama, should be one way of transcending these stereotypes.

Walker, now teaching drama at Howard University, agreed to direct the "Prisoner of Second Avenue" because the themes of despair couched in comedy, he says, are universal ones.

"You come across a Joseph Walker only once," Moses whispers, brimming with awe, "and when he says he will come direct your play, its unbelievable."

Staging the production, Moses adds, opens up the acting opportunities for black actors by demonstrating that roles previously reserved for white actors can be played by other people.

The impish quality of Moses' demeanor belies the numbers of years, and changes, that preceded this basement stage.

Children, Hollywood and the ministry are all a part of this moment which, the 30-year-old Moses says, really began 16 years ago when a group of Alexandria friends were rounded-up to perform a play he wrote: "Love is the Key."

The play gave birth to Quiet Fire.

Together for seven years before Moses alighted in 1973 for the glittering lights of Hollywood and acting school, the group was reborn in 1976 when Moses -- home from California -- was asked by community organizers to write a play about black life in Alexandria in the early 1800s.

The play -- "Over the Glory Land" -- centered around the reaction of Alexandria blacks to the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner before the Civil War.

"I called up everyone from the old troupe," he explains, a nostalgic glimmer glazing his eyes, "and we came back together. It was like a high school reunion."

The group -- minus some and plus a few others -- has been performing together now for four years. In addition, a Saturday afternoon children's workshop has been added to the Quiet Fire repertoire.

The children's workshops, Moses explains, were started to help children improve their self-image.

"Poverty is cold," Moses says. "It is beaten into you that you will never be able to do much.

"You are taught merely to survive."

Theater allows children to act out different roles and frustrations, Moses says. It teaches them, through the mouthpiece of another character, that they can excel.

The deep laughter once again rocks the room. "We'll survive," Walker booms, "things have got to get better."