The dozens is an intriguing game blacks play. Make that, some blacks. But that is still to say, your average white person has probably never heard of it.

"The Dozens" is also the name of a comedy which opens tonight at 8 at Howard University's Ira Aldridge Theatre.

The game, in real life and in the play, usually consists of an exchange between two people in which each person's mother is subjected to a barrage of unprintable abuses. Of course, this is in spite of the fact that respect for one's mother is an almost inviolable tenet. The game can be played with either good or ill intentions, in jest or in anger -- and it does not have to focus on one's mother.

But one thing doesn't change, the winner is determined by who can stand the humiliation -- affectionate or evil -- longest. The loser is the one who stomps off mad, or begins the fight.

One example of how to play the dozens takes place in the Howard University production when two of the major characters are engaged in one of several marital spats.

"You'd rather run through hell in gasoline drawers than do anything," the wife says.

"So would your mama," her husband responds.

"So would your mama's mama," she retorts.

"So would your mama's mama's ugly mama."

"Or your daddy, whoever he was," fires the wife, getting the last word."

Chaka, a fictional African country, is the setting that provides such marital tension. Via Hillman, a struggling nightclub singer, and her husband-manager, Stanley Pollack, have come to Chaka from New York City at the request of King Kgaravoo, who wants Via to perform for him. But the couple has the misfortune to arrive on the eve of a Communist-inspired revolution during which the king is forced to flee his throne.

Via and Stanley take refuge in a Coca-Cola bottling factory that has already been pillaged by the revolutionaries. Because the entire play takes place in the factory, the audience is able to examine through the dozens how one couple supports as well as hurts each other in a time of crisis.

"There are two kinds of games of the dozens," says T. G. Cooper, who directs the Howard production. "It can be used to relax an argument, or it can be used to foster an argument."

At a recent rehearsal, Cooper asked Bernard P. J. Jefferson III and Janice Price, the two Howard seniors who play the husband and wife roles, to run through a scene in which the dozens is used in starting a fight. Price gets it going when she decides she's leaving her husband for good, she says.

Preparing to go, she primps before her pocket mirror. "Before I leave, do you think the Africans would like short hair or long? As long as I'm getting raped out there, I might as well get raped so it'll do me some good."

"Maybe I could negotiate you a better price," her husband fires back.

But his wife is ready and waiting. "Just because your mama and your daddy paid their dues that way . . ."

"Your mama was a . . ." Stanley begins but Via cuts him off. "For your inforfmation, I do not play the dozens anymore. Sometimes I may play the eights, nines or tens, but not the dozens."

This is a crucial line for Cooper, who produced this play in part because he believes the game is part of Afro-American culture that should be preserved.

"I think the dozens may be dying out now," he says. "I want to relate to an older audience, but I'm also trying to point out to a younger audience the history and the traditions the game involves."

But in actor Jeffeson's eyes, the game is in no danger of dying soon. A native Washingtonian, he remembers playing the dozens as a boy. "It was like being king for a day if you could beat someone at the dozens," he says.

And it's not such a different story with men and women, Jefferson adds. "In the play, Stanley and Via have the usual marriage. We fight, but we love it."

Most husbands and wives can see a grain of truth in that. Meanwhile, the play at Howard is a study in a black tradition. For that reason alone, it is worth seeing.

The play, by white playwright Laird Koening, has an 8 p.m. curtain through Sunday.