DEATH AND THE KING'S HORESEMAN -- At the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theather through December 23.

Wolfe Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright who wrote and directed the richly woven "Death and the King's Horseman," now at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, has said scathing things about people who apply "the facile tag of 'clash of cultures'" to his work.

"In the area of misapplication, the overseas prize for illiteracy and mental conditioning undoubtedly goes to the blurb-writer for the American edition of my novel 'Season of Anomy' who unblushingly declares that this work portrays the 'clash between old values and new ways, between western methods and African traditions'!" he says in a note to this play, which is set in colonial Nigeria in 1944.

And it would be facile, in this dramatization of a true incident in which an officer of the British king prevented the ritually prescribed suicide of an officer of a Nigerian tribal king, to take sides. You could argue either for the sancity of human life against barbaric tradition, or for the sanctity of an ancient tradition of honor against callous imperialism, depending on which is the correct fashion of the day.

But the play is about man and his culture. It includes both Nigerians and British (but not women -- the women of both peoples merely repeat forcefully the respective formulae).

Each time the two cultures are compared, the British comes off as ridiculous and awkward, and the Nigerian as dignified and beautiful. It is terribly funny to break from the poetic grace of the blacks' music and dance to watch the whites tango to the pop tunes of the day at their European Club.

But the concepts of honorable sacrifice, veneration of royalty, and duty above personal interest are the same. The title character has a son who has been studying in England and, in his white suit, tries to serve as an interpreter of one culture to another, while accepting both.

The heart of the play, however, is the terrible struggle involved in suppressing the natural instinct to live in order to live up to -- by dying -- the requirements of civilization. This is the conflict of the king's horseman, who, having enjoyed all the benefits of his position, must now perform its ultimate sacrifice by following his late king to death. Stopped by a horrified British district officer (whose wife voices their admiration for a British captain who observed the honorable convention of going down with his ship) the horseman incurs a public disgrace that corresponds to his own extremely well-hidden desire to avoid his duty.

Norman Matlock plays the horseman with lusty vitality, and Ben Halley Jr. and Celestine Heard are vivid reprsentatives of his community. Numerous young dancers and musicians give the production sensuality and depth.