This is Avery Brooks. Muscle and metaphysics. Stately quietude, or a loud spilling of words, a detonation even, a big fist hammering at empty air. "Mischief," says playwright Ntozake Shange, "and passion."

Passion, yes.

In the current production of "Othello" at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, Brooks's portrayal of the tragic warrior is stunningly physical. His Othello writhes on the floor in agony as Andre Braugher's Iago, with casual viciousness, paints a detailed lie about his wife's infidelity. Late in the play, as the "noble Moor" stalks the set, ever more tortured by jealousy, Brooks is so taut he seems likely to rip through his own skin.

"I placed Othello specifically in Mauritania, so that he comes from the Tuareg tribe," he says in his elegant baritone. "I made it very, very specific. So these people are nomads, and they are superb horsemen, camel riders. But they are also very fierce warriors ... so it's really important somehow that we believe in the power, especially the physical power, of this man."

And to do this, to manifest such intensity, what does he draw upon? Is it simply technique?

"This stuff we call theater," he explains, "it is a way of talking about the world. ... Something that, I suppose, we cannot identify or indeed articulate. We know it. We seek it, we search for it constantly, to find one rare exchange, something wonderful between human beings." Each word comes out a thing of hard shape, distinct from the next one and the next.

"I am seeking this stuff. The stuff of" -- he stops, finds the words, announces them with particular smoothness. "This human stuff." He tilts his head, briefly unveiling his top teeth. "If I don't believe what I'm doing, you certainly will not. I come from the place of belief. ... I use no makeup, ever. I'm not pretending to be anybody... . Just because you're saying these words and they're Shakespeare's words ... there is nothing profound about that. You have to invest something. It has to cost something if you want to get at it. That's the thing. Again, what is that? That's life" -- a smile blooms -- "and all it's filled with."

At 41, Brooks is an accomplished stage actor, having embodied such mythic men as Paul Robeson (in a one-man Broadway show) and Malcolm X (in the opera "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X"). He is also a tenured professor of theater at Rutgers University, where he earned master's degrees in acting and directing.

Most of America, though, knows him as Hawk, the hired gun he played in the TV series "Spenser: For Hire" and its short-lived spinoff "A Man Called Hawk." Every night, as Brooks makes Othello live and die for 243 people, millions have access to "Spenser" reruns on cable.

But to get at Avery Brooks, you must confront an energy in him, an energy that at first seems contrary to his grandiose talk about theater as communion. It is a store of racial resentment. You want to call it anger, but he insists on inflating it: "It is the rage of centuries that I'm filled with!"

Deep, deep, African rage. The kind you don't hear much anymore from famous black people.

But then Brooks will say it isn't anger so much as passion. "I feel passionate about everything in the world." Whenever the conversation turns to race -- for example, the issue of an Afro-centric school curriculum -- the passion seems to overtake him.

"When you start to deal with the history of the African continuum," Brooks says, "you start to understand that Africa, without a doubt, is the progenitor of modern civilization, certainly Western civilization. {Europeans} owe everything to the knowledge that was given to them, or taught to them, from the great civilizations of Africa, the great ancient empires." The way he says it -- "Africa" -- biting hard the first syllable, letting the rest out like a sigh, it is pure, beautiful invocation.

He goes on to proclaim that white cultures, in their historic encounters with darker peoples, have always wreaked war and devastation. "The Christians, man, were notorious for wiping out traces of whatever went before."

His voice rises as his brow hardens. "Let's come forward in time. Let's talk about the Vietnam War. Why did they bomb Cambodia, man? You dig? They bombed one of the most ancient cities, you know. Angkor Wat? They bombed it. You know what I'm saying? Why? They still have the pillars from the Colosseum in Rome, don't they? All the remnants of that stuff is still here."

The rage flows again when he speaks of the drug crisis. " 'Drug czar,' " he sneers. "I mean, come on. These people just change hats and seats, don't they? What do you mean, drug czar? What does that mean to people in my community? It means more aggression on the part of the police. If you cannot solve the drug problem in the nation's capital" -- with each word, Brooks bangs the arm of his chair -- "what does that tell you? Hmmm? That society allowed it to be there. Allowed it. Black people are not responsible for that. Dig?

"Yes, there is complicity, because if you buy into it, if you acquiesce, if you insist on not looking at your history, if you lay down your hope and your dreams and the discussion of life for succeeding generations, then yes," he says. "I'm not ready to do that. And I'm not alone."

"Avery is a very bitter person," says Shange, who worked closely with him during the late '70s. The writer later modifies her assessment, saying Brooks can "come off" as bitter, but that she understands. She's angry too.

"Our anger connects intimately. One shrink told me he never saw anyone as angry as I am," she says, laughing. "He was stunned that I am so angry, and I was sitting there just as calm. I think that must be what happens with Avery. We live so intensely that other people find it hard to translate that."

When it came to performing her plays or poetry, "I knew that with Avery on the stage, in some way there would be an epicenter of racial energy," Shange says. "This primordial racial dignity."

Maybe, then, he is an engine. And African pride is his fuel, and anger is just the smoke we see when he's gunning it, when Othello is writhing on his back, when Hawk is kicking somebody's butt.

Adventures in Prime Time Brooks still gets it on the street. "I've been asked many times whether I was exactly like this Hawk character," he says. "Well, no. How could that be so?" White people especially, he says, "think that I actually carry a gun, and that probably I was standing on a street corner somewhere and these producers saw me and asked me if I wanted to come on television and do this." He chuckles. "Or {they} talk to me in some vernacular that's supposed to be, what, black speech? 'Hey, bruh ... ' What is that?"

A little confusion you can figure. Although Brooks isn't wearing shades or a long leather coat as he walks toward Pennsylvania Avenue to get some sushi before a performance, something in the sway of his shoulders evokes that two-dimensional knight of the streets known only as Hawk.

Brooks doesn't bemoan the power of television. In fact, "I sincerely hope that I was careful in shaping that {image}, which now will live on into time," he says. "I am sure that this Hawk is, for prime-time television, a contemporary mythological brown hero. Of that I am sure."

Inside an office at the Folger, he recounts his adventures in TV with occasional bursts of motion and language, thick thighs in old jeans constantly shifting his body in a metal chair, sometimes rocking the thing on its hind legs. His face changes shape in the dim light of a desk lamp.

Brooks auditioned in 1985 for a pilot based on mystery writer Robert B. Parker's "Spenser" novels. Robert Urich would play the philosophical Boston private eye. In the books, Hawk has a bald head, a huge gun and underworld connections, and is an important ally for Spenser. It was Brooks's first try for a network TV part, and he got it.

"I must say to you that I was very disappointed with the script as it stood," he says. "The character as it was sketched was not going to resonate in any brown community that I know." So Brooks told the producers he considered Hawk a stereotype. "I was told essentially that my job is to hit my mark and say my lines. ... 'Hit your mark, say your line, get your paycheck.' Hmmm. Okay. Watch this.

"From that point on, I made it up. On camera. The language, the style of the character, the whole thing. Within the parameters that were given. I made up Hawk," he says. "It seemed to work. Robert {Urich} seemed to be comfortable with it. I was very, very sure that I was not just, for the sake of money, going to do whatever somebody imagined about black people. I have never done that, and will never do that. Anybody that I am playing, those folks have to have their dignity and their integrity."

Brooks says he saw in Hawk the opportunity, "if I was only on there for half a second, to celebrate the culture." He smiles proud, shows you a hand, its fingers spread, and then he pushes it down, down, through invisible sand. "Because this character Hawk is deep down, way down deep in the culture. Big feet in the African continuum, huh? The sum -- I mean, he's the baddest cat I know. So I'm quoting the culture, in every single moment."

And it resonated. As the series progressed, Brooks, though usually on screen for just a few minutes per episode, was bringing in as much fan mail as Urich. And black intellectuals were glomming onto Hawk as a breakthrough in American television. "You had a real strong black independent character who did not apologize for who he was," says E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and director of Howard University's Afro-American Resource Center.

Unfortunately, Brooks says he was frustrated throughout the making of "Spenser." Working in racially polarized Boston was difficult, he says. Worst of all, he believes that the show's white producers didn't know what he was doing with Hawk, and didn't care. During the conception of the spinoff series, "these same people asked me to tell them about Hawk. I said, 'Surely you jest, baby! You mean to tell me, in three and a half years -- you haven't looked at this, have you?' " He scowls. "Hmmm. Hmmm."

Modern-Day Mythologizing "A Man Called Hawk" was unlike anything attempted before on network television. In the history of the medium, only a few hour-long dramatic series have ever been built around a black character, and none around a "contemporary mythological brown hero." Avery Brooks was determined to suffuse "Hawk" with Afro-centric mysticism, particularly in the relationship between Hawk and someone called Old Man (Moses Gunn).

The series, which lasted a few months in early 1989, featured lots of gunplay as Hawk came to the defense of those in need, usually squaring off against white gangsters. We never saw where Hawk lived. But during quiet moments, we would see Hawk and Old Man in some unexplained place, filled with African art. (One time, Hawk is playing a kalimba.) They would exchange somber words, and Hawk would receive some sort of spiritual counsel.

"You cannot talk about African people without talking about the spiritual dimension. African people are spiritual people," Brooks says. "And this place that Hawk went -- because you never saw a building or anything -- he was just in this place. And the other producers fought me about this notion, and then wrote a scene where we see him standing outside with Old Man, and {wanted to} give the Old Man a sister. That's not the idea, baby! It's not kitchen-sink drama. We're talking about mythology, contemporary mythology. Just like Superboy, the Lone Ranger, all of that. See?

"The idea is that you should question whether this place that Hawk goes when he is troubled, where he goes, he goes somewhere inside his subconscious." Brooks, grinning, pushes a finger against his temple. "Somewhere inside. So you're actually somewhere in the ether of his psyche. You dig? Like that."

Not even longstanding Hawk fans thought this metaphysical stuff always worked. Ethelbert Miller can't help giggling as he recalls a scene in the very first episode when Hawk hands Old Man a book wrapped in kente cloth, an original edition of "The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. DuBois. " 'Tis more than a gift, Hawk. 'Tis a treasure!" says Old Man, who then announces gravely, "You are very much alike, you and this man."

"I said, 'Naw, this is just too much here,' " Miller says. "You can't get too syrupy with it." Then again, one of the most memorable scenes in the series for Miller was when a friend of Old Man dies in her hospital bed. "Let me be with her for a few minutes," Old Man says. Hawk moves to the door, looks back, and Old Man is gone.

"And you said, 'Woo, this is something else. This is on a whole other level,' " Miller says. That one shot conveyed "the supernatural that comes out of our folklore."

"Let me tell you something," Brooks begins. "I was in Atlanta earlier this summer for the Black Arts Festival, and I'm in this club, and it's 2:30 in the morning. And this young brother, who just came in from some kind of battle -- you dig? -- came into the bar. And he recognized me. And he started to tell me about his favorite episode. He understood everything. So, too metaphysical for its own good? I'm not sure about that." He smiles.

While "A Man Called Hawk" was being planned, Brooks used to tell his confidantes, "if we get one of these on the air, it's too late. It's done. I mean, just the notion. It's done. Just one. All they have to do is show it one time." His smile turns subversive. "Too late."

Holding the Line Avery Brooks is notoriously reticent about his personal life, the world he shares in New Jersey with his wife, Vicki, an assistant dean at Rutgers, and their three young children, Ayana, Cabral and Asante.

Yet he has offered up a few facts about his family history that at least serve to explain his aesthetic grounding. He was born in Evansville, Ind., and raised in Gary. His father, Samuel Leon Brooks, belonged to Wings Over Jordan, a gospel choir that had its own CBS radio show from 1937 to 1947. His mother, Eva Lydia Crawford, was a pianist, organist and choral teacher. His uncle, Traverse Crawford, was one of the Delta Rhythm Boys, a renowned quartet formed in 1935.

"Music is a part of my landscape," Brooks says. A singer and musician himself, he has performed with such jazz artists as Jon Hendricks, Henry Threadgill and Lester Bowie.

"I grew up in the context of a black community where ideas such as dignity and integrity and proper behavior still existed," Brooks has said. "The older I got, the more I started to realize that it was really incumbent upon me to hold the line, especially when I had children."

Brooks says he hasn't been offered a substantial TV or movie role since "A Man Called Hawk" went off the air. He is convinced that his experiences on "Spenser" and "Hawk" have led to him being labeled "difficult and demanding" in Hollywood. (If that's so, William Robert Yates isn't saying. One of two white executive producers in charge of "A Man Called Hawk," Yates says the actor was "fantastic. I have a feeling that if the right property comes along, he'll be back.")

Brooks declares loudly, "I'm articulate. I'm thoughtful. I'm an intellectual. I care about my work. My standards are very high. That does not make me difficult and demanding. If I raise my voice -- and I do have a big voice -- that's interpreted as something else. It's the classic perception of black males. I still walk on elevators and women clutch their purses closer to their breast."

In a calmer moment, slumped in his seat, the man twists his big silver ring, custom-made in the shape of a West African mask. "You know, this question of race," he sighs. "We've got so far to go in understanding, embracing each other as a nation."