Ed Bishop is a gambling man.

As producer and director of the new American Theatre Project, now serving up "Jonin' " to solid reviews at the Church Street Theatre, he is wagering that a new appetite for a broader range of theater offerings in Washington will support a professional, multicultural troupe in a city that has rarely been kind to small or black-owned theaters.

"We think that Washington is the center of {American} culture, but since most of the city's population is African American, there should be a larger African American presence in the theater community," Bishop said. "We have as an aim the reemergence of that presence."

Actually, there are about a dozen black troupes in the District, counting Bishop's new professional company, as well as various collections of semi-professionals and touring amateurs. But most are unknown outside the theater community, and all say they have a tough time finding money and space.

Local black actors also complain of how grueling it is to find work in the District compared with New York, Los Angeles and other major cities.

"D.C. likes to pride itself as a big theater town. But it's not. It's a political town," said Tazwell Thompson, a black director and artistic associate at Arena Stage.

"And there hasn't been enough room for African Americans," Bishop said. Traditionally, "they've had to search for all-black plays."

But times are changing. It started with non-traditional casting in major productions of the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger and gradually has moved into other city stages with such recent productions as Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at Arena Stage. Eager to build audiences, Arena and the Studio Theater also have started mounting more works by black playwrights and about black issues.

"I applaud what these companies around town are doing," said Michael Howell, a black actor with Arena's resident company. "Not just in terms of casting, but in dealing with the black culture."

Driving the local groups is demand. Black audiences have flocked to shows such as "Beauty Shop" at Constitution Hall and "Over 40" at the Takoma Theater, both by all-black touring companies with big advertising budgets.

Still, artists across the city say opportunities remain limited for the development of any sort of stable of black playwrights, black technicians and black-owned theaters to respond to the new appetite.

"It's disheartening, even embarrassing, that there's not a professional black-owned and operated Equity house in the city," Howell said.

Enter Bishop's American Theatre Project, which opened a month ago in the home of the now-defunct American Playwrights Theatre.

The project debuted with "Jonin'," by playwight Gerard Brown, a 1975 Howard University graduate, which had successful runs in Los Angeles and New York.

"ATP is on the right track, and if they play their cards right they'll grow and move much further," said John Moore, of the Washington Project for the Arts. Moore heads the African Continuum Theater Coalition of eight local black companies, including ATP, formed two years ago to promote black community theater in Washington.

He and others describe the problems facing black stage groups as a whirlpool of vicious circles. "It takes money to get a performing space, and to raise money you have to have a person devoted toward that, which itself costs money," Moore said. "Then audiences have a set notion of what a theater is. And if it doesn't have the space and it's not in The Post, it's not a theater."

The coalition, he said, hopes someday to establish a center that could permanently house member troupes. But for now it intends to bring in consultants to advise two or three troupes at a time on how to market productions, raise money, develop budgets and improve visibility.

"You're competing with 15 other theater companies. It's very difficult if you don't have a space," said Daniel Brooking, vice chairman of Encore Theatre Company, a black community troupe. "In Washington that space costs upward of $300 a night. If you're a small community theater, you may not generate $300 a month."

Corporate backing also has been largely out of reach, Moore said.

"This is not a corporate town, and the ones that are here want to say, 'X amount of people came to see everything I underwrote'; they want to know what's in it for them," he said.

That tends to leave unproven black companies such as Enough Said Children's Christian Theatre Co. and Creative Ascent out in the cold.

"Money begets money," said Creative Ascent's Amelia Cobb Gray. "So the problem is how to get that initial thrust."

"Arena {Stage} took 10 years to develop," said Peggy Cooper Cafritz, chairwoman emeritus of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. "In the black community there is less time to nurture things before the bouquet of success is caught or the ax of failure falls."

Still, Bishop is optimistic. He notes that downturns in the economy traditionally have been healthy times for local theaters, as consumers search for inexpensive entertainment close to home.

But some small troupes survive by staying on the road. Several perform free at halfway houses, homeless shelters and hospitals. Some depend on donations from churches. One troupe, Pinpoints Theatre, spends most of its time traveling to fee-paying universities across the country.

And Rep Inc., the city's only other black-run theater with a permanent space, is now a student-managed operation. Originally the D.C. Black Repertory Company, it was launched in 1971 by actor Robert Hooks on waves of publicity and Ford Foundation funding as a training ground for black actors.

Co-founder Vantile Whitfield is still artistic director, but Rep Inc. long ago dropped its Equity status and turned itself over to students.

"We operate from low budget to no budget now," Whitfield said. Word of mouth and mailings brought 30 to 60 ticket sales a night for the company's last production in November. But the theater hasn't applied for a grant in two years because the process is too complicated for students, Whitfield said.

Moore agrees. "We're at the point where we have to separate those who want to manage from those who want to produce artistically. But it's only been in black institutions for the last five years or so that there's been an emphasis on theater management."

That management is what Bishop said he hopes will set ATP apart from failed professional black companies of which he has been a part in the past. For starters, he said, he will stage only works that have a proven track record.

"We can't afford to bring in the new play that hasn't been tried and tested and retested," Bishop said. His support for unknown playwrights, he said, will be in the form of occasional staged readings.

With funding from a private, anonymous backer, ATP is allotting $50,000 to produce "Jonin'," and paying actors and technicians a little less than $200 a week. The 125-seat Church Street Theater for a six-week run costs "close to $2,000 a week," and ticket sales have approached 85 on weekends and 30 on weekdays.

A Shaw resident, Bishop, 41, came to Washington from his native Birmingham in 1985, after a black dance and theater troupe that he directed suspended operations.

Within two weeks of his arrival in Washington, he landed an acting job in Rockville's Little Theater production of "Ladies' Side." Since then, he has directed two seasons for the now defunct Takoma Players, acted and directed for the Source Theater and taught drama at Charles County Community College.

A onetime consultant for the Head Start program, he also is associate director of Everyday Theater Youth Ensemble, a troupe of inner-city Washington young adults who write works for presentation to peers on such issues as AIDS, drugs and teenage pregnancy.

Still, ATP takes most of his time and energy, planning a production in May of Jean Genet's absurdist classic "The Blacks," subtitled "A Clown Show," a parody of a revenge ritual with actors who wear white masks.

"It's a black city, and I think the city is starved for black productions," said Arena's Thompson. But Bishop winces when asked if he sees ATP as a new D.C. Black Repertory Co. He will not let ATP be limited to plays about blacks or be exclusive to black casting, he said.

"We're confident of corporate funding because we are an American company; I have to emphasize that," he said. "We may be black owned and operated, but our employees aren't all black and our productions aren't all going to have all-black casts."

And what he hopes to draw is a multiracial and multi-ethnic audience. Early in the "Jonin' " run, the audience was nearly 100 percent black; lately, he said, it has been closer to 60 percent.

"It's scary," he said of his dream. "It's one of the biggest risks an individual can take . . . . We may go completely broke, but we will not fold.

"We will not fold."

Ford's Theatre will hold a performance of "Black Eagles" at 3 p.m. Feb. 24 to benefit the African Continuum Theatre Coalition. Tickets are $25. Call 638-2941.

American Theatre Project: Operating from the Church Street Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW, ATP is presenting "Jonin'" by Gerald Brown, at 8 p.m. daily through Sunday. For ticket information, call 202-265-3748.

Creative Ascent: Amelia Cobb Gray's eight-year-old company has performed plays at venues ranging from the French Embassy to homeless shelters. Its most recent production was Nicole Burton's "Starman Wish You Luck." For more information, call 301-587-6693.

Encore Theatre Company: This community troupe's shows have ranged from "The Owl and the Pussycat" to Althol Fugard's "Sizwe Banzi is Dead." In 1989, the company represented the United States at the Toyoma International Amateur Theater Festival in Japan. Encore will present a family-oriented musical revue at 7.30 Feb. 8 at the Sumner School, 17th and M streets NW. For Information call 301-231-3518.

Enough Said Children's Christian Theatre Company: A community theater group with performers ages 7-18. Founder Esther Anglade started the company in Atlanta four years agoa and brought it to Washington in 1987. All the productions are original. For information call 301-589-3893.

Everyday Theater Youth Ensemble: The company and internship program operate from the former Randall junior High School at First and I streets SW.

HOME: Theatre for New Columbia. This company, devoted to experimental black works, has performed at the Washington Project for the Arts and the Eastern Market. For more information, call 202-483-2897.

Pinpoints Theater: For the past eight years, this touring troupe has been educating college and elementary school students on "1,001 Black Inventions." Call 202-582-0002 for information.

Rep. Inc.: The city's oldest surviving black owned and operated theater company is located at 3415 18th St. NE. Call 202-269-9677 for information.

Serenity Players: Doris Thomas's community company performs "inspirational" plays such as james Weldon Johnson's "God's Trombones" with performers ages 4 to 72. For information, call 202-575-4228.

TM/2: This three-year-old company has performed contemporary classics such as Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story" as well as one-man show on Martin Luther King Jr. Call 202-917-2890 for more information.