When the youth ensemble of the Everyday Theater began pondering a subject for a new play not long ago, the state of the District's juvenile justice system was the unanimous choice.

Many of the ensemble members knew about that subject firsthand, so what evolved was a powerful and poetic look at the way this society treats its children.

The play is called "My Brother, My Life" and takes place in a courtroom where a youth is on trial for murder. Seated in the courtroom during the trial are the youth's fellow gang members, those who have had the most influence on his life.

They are: Fast Lane, Family Breakdown, AIDS and Low Esteem.

As the youth on trial begins his testimony, flashbacks occur in which the roles of the gang members are brought to life. In the end, no verdict is handed down, because you -- the audience -- are the jury.

The play is a real eye-opener and is quite timely, given the recent concerns about juvenile justice in Washington. Much is being made of the woeful state of juvenile institutions such as Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll.

Even the Youth Services Administration, which refers youngsters to the theater for training, has taken some sharp blows. Just this week, a court-ordered report criticized the youth agency, saying that it has taken little action when dealing with overtime abuse, juvenile abuse, intoxicated staff counselors, staff shortages and juvenile escapes.

Given this apparent disarray in a system that is supposed to help them, the young members of the Everyday Theater wanted to pose a question to the public: Just who is really responsible for the crimes of our youth?

For six weeks, the 35 budding actors and actresses, stage managers and set designers worked tirelessly, writing, conceptualizing, interviewing juvenile offenders past and present, parole officers and social workers until they had honed one of the most insightful plays in the theater's nine-year history.

With financial support from the D.C. Commission on Social Services, and a rehearsal room in the Randall Building at First and I streets SW, the ensemble became living proof that there could be a future for youths age 15 to 24 who were not in school nor employed.

They were given voice lessons, music lessons and acting lessons and schooled in the art and science of playwriting and production.

When the play made its debut this summer at the Marie Reed Learning Center, it was a smash. It was particularly pleasing to Susan Solf, who runs the ensemble, to watch the youngsters prove to themselves that determination and hard work can pay off in such a dramatic way.

Not only were their acting talents on display, so were their musical skills, which they showed off with nearly $10,000 worth of equipment: keyboard, synthesizer, digital delay, drum machine, four-track tape recorder and video camera.

The ensemble was all set for its next major performances at 8 p.m. Nov. 5 through 8 at the Sanctuary Theatre, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW. News releases had been sent out. The cast was raring to go.

Then, on the weekend of Oct. 10, someone broke into the Randall School and stole all of the group's equipment.

The hurt and disappointment could not be put into words. But the ensemble regrouped. The music for the play had been recorded on tape, so that will be used instead of the live band.

When the cast members take to the stage next week, they no doubt will be a little shaken at not being able to perform as they had rehearsed. They might even think that their message won't be as powerful. But the message was not in the music. It is in the reality that these youngsters bring to the stage.

With or without the equipment, the production of "My Brother, My Life" should not be missed.