JOHANNESBURG -- This country's best-known actress, Janet Suzman, is directing one of its top actors, John Kani, in the first professional production here of "Othello" with a black in the title role.

It is Suzman's debut as a director and the first Shakespearean part for Kani, a 1975 Tony Award winner for his Broadway role in Athol Fugard's "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead."

Suzman, a native of Johannesburg, lives in London but regularly visits her parents here. She is the niece of Helen Suzman, an outspoken foe of apartheid who is the longest-serving member of South Africa's Parliament.

Suzman may be violating the international cultural boycott of South Africa by directing "Othello." But she said her decision was not difficult.

"One must do what one must do," she told a local drama critic. "Putting on 'Othello' with John Kani is infinitely more important than stamping my foot and saying I won't set foot in the country."

Both Kani, who is an associate director of the Market Theater, where the play is being performed, and Suzman believe "Othello," with its focus on the destruction of an interracial marriage, contains important messages for South Africans.

"It brings into focus what is going on now -- the reluctance of people in this country to accept each other on the basis of the fact that they do not share the same pigmentation," Kani told New Nation, a black-oriented weekly.

"The rightness of doing this play, with this cast, in this theater, at this time seems to me so obvious as hardly to warrant clarification," Suzman said in the program notes. "The overtones, undercurrents and reverberations for our country are hauntingly evident."

She said Othello, the Moorish general, and Desdemona, his young wife, "bring to each other the best of their complementary and distinct heritages and seem to promise a union made both in heaven and firmly on earth ... That bad intervenes to impede and finally to ruin the rightness of it is the chief metaphor for South Africa."

Kani told interviewers his biggest challenge in "Othello," more than delivering Shakespeare's verses, was being directed by a woman for the first time. "I am an African man and, as such, I find it very hard to take orders from a woman," he said.

One of 11 children, Kani worked on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Co. plant in Port Elizabeth for six years. In 1965, while working at Ford, he joined the Serpent Players, a drama group of which Fugard was the only white member.

Since then, Kani has become one of South Africa's preeminent actors, touring abroad in an acclaimed production of "Waiting for Godot" and performing in several films.

Kani, 43, has said he's as much a politician as an actor, and he knows firsthand the consequences of South Africa's racial conflict. One of his brothers was shot dead by police during unrest in 1985, and another brother was sentenced in 1962 to five years in prison after being convicted of furthering the aims of the outlawed African National Congress