JOHANNESBURG -- John Kani remembers well his introduction to Shakespeare at a Bantu school in South Africa's eastern Cape Province.

A little "Macbeth," a little "Julius Caesar" in the startlingly beautiful tongue-clicking rhythms of the Xhosa tribal language. And the final exam question: "Who said 'Et tu, Brute?' "

Twenty-six years later, Kani has returned to Shakespeare, this time at the core of a powerful metaphor for apartheid that is hardly lost on the nearly all-white audiences now filling Johannesburg's Market Theater. It is South Africa's first professional production of "Othello" with a black actor in the title role, and Kani revels in the chance to let Shakespeare cry out against modern injustice.

"When I see Othello and Desdemona, I see a noble attempt to get two people together in a marriage designed in Heaven. And then I see Iago -- the Bothas and the Treurnichts -- who try not to let it happen," said Kani, referring to South African President Pieter W. Botha and Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht.

Sipping tea with lemon, Kani said he becomes emotional when he considers the fate of the doomed lovers on stage night after night. "Sometimes I think, 'Please, please, can't we change it just for tonight?' " he said. " 'Can't we have Iago saying, "I'm sorry. I made a mistake"?' But it doesn't happen in the play, and it doesn't happen in South Africa. In 'Othello' the tragedy is inevitable. In South Africa, the tragedy is not inevitable, but the way it's going now, it's going to blow."

His voice rose, more in anguish than for effect: "The whole world will be shocked when that pressure explodes. You're talking Congo. You're talking 25 million black people who are very angry and only 4 million white people who are trying to hang on to their good life! "

In a country that prohibited interracial marriage before it reluctantly scrapped the infamous Immorality Act two years ago, it is no surprise that Othello and Desdemona's first passionate stage embrace briefly but palpably startles theatergoers here.

Not very long ago, the spectacle of Kani kissing blond and fair-skinned actress Joanna Weinberg full on the mouth would have triggered a national debate and probably violent demonstrations by white supremacist groups. Indeed, Kani recalled, when he appeared in Strindberg's "Miss Julie" at the Market just two years ago, half the audience walked out as he put his hand on the thigh of the white actress playing the lead role. The next night, Kani needed the protection of security officers to leave the theater safely, and subsequently, the government curtailed the run of the play.

"But this time it's Shakespeare, so it's apparently all right," said Kani, adding that he doubted if two years had changed fundamental attitudes so radically. Still, production photos of "Othello's" interracial intimacy now appear on the review pages of South African newspapers without so much as a murmur of indignation.

Kani won a Tony Award in 1975 for his Broadway performance in Athol Fugard's "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead," and he has toured abroad in an acclaimed production of "Waiting for Godot." But this is his first mature encounter with Shakespeare, and he seems amazed that the playwright's perceptions in 1604 could speak so truly of human relationships yet to come.

"What could have moved him to inject into his play this black character? What moved him to put interracial sex into this play, and the kind of venality of whites that we see today? I read that script, and I thought I was in South Africa in 1987," Kani said. Of his own interpretation of the role, he said, "I took him as a wonderful human being trying to fit into a foreign society. He was a Moorish general, and {whites} wined and dined him, but when it came to the nitty-gritty, like marrying my daughter, well, that's going a little too far with liberalism.

"For years here in South Africa, the question has been: 'Do you want your daughter to have a child who is black, with thick lips, kinky hair and a flat nose?' The beauty is, Shakespeare transcends these differences and lifts this play to a greater metaphor for life."

Theoverriding question, he said, is whether that metaphor will be recognized in South Africa in time.

Itdid not come easily, the passion that makes Kani, 44, as much a politician as an actor -- one who will risk another nighttime visit by security police for saying in this interview the forbidden words: "I'm a black man and a patriot. Being a patriot, I'm a combatant. I'm prepared to die, because my first responsibility is to liberate my people and help lead them to a free society. Then I am an actor."

Growing up in a black township in Port Elizabeth, the son of a policeman who struggled to raise 10 children, Kani wanted to be a lawyer. He probably would have, had it not been for the day in 1962 security police came to his

house and asked where they could find.