As a black civil war soldier in the hit musical, "On Shiloh Hill," which appeared at the Ford's Theatre last year, Elmore James learned from black ushers that some whites in the audience were visibly uneasy with the role he played.

Symbolizing triumph over adversity, James evolved from an eye-rolling "coon" into a gutsy war hero. It was a transformation, he notes, that some folks just did not like.

Indeed, the old issues that started the Civil War still burn deeply in parts of this essentially southern metropolitan area, so when James returned to Washington to begin rehearsal for his starring role in the Shakespeare classic, "Othello," now playing at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger Library, he simply prepared himself for the worst.

"I was ready for the adversity this time," he said before a performance last week. "I was not self-conscious all through rehearsals."

Here is the story of a black man who excels in a powerful white society, marries a white woman and draws the wrath of those around him.

Othello, a distinguished general, is referred to as a "lusty black ram," with a "sooty bosom" filled with "foul charm"; his white wife is accused of "treason of the blood."

And as everybody looks on, Othello and Desdemona, played by the fair-skinned, blond-haired actress Sherry Skinker, embrace and kiss.

"I had managed not to even think about it until the curtain rose on opening night," James recalled. "Then, as I was kissing her, it just hit me: What on earth are those people thinking?"

On stage, the Othello haters were casting sidelong glances and snickering. Tension filled the air.

But it was Shakespeare's gift to work this tension into a mosaic more elaborate than interracial romance. As director Mikel Lambert noted, many words describing Othello refer to his "blackness," but because characters in the play lie so much, one can never be certain that racism is a real motive -- or just a convenience.

"It is rather like Hitler's hatred of Jews: that has never been adequately explained, but we know well enough what he did about it," Lambert wrote. "Shakespeare, too, knew the danger inherent in such virulent hatred: Why one 'hates' doesn't matter nearly so much as that one does."

For James, 31, a graduate of the New York's High School of Performing Arts (on which the movie and television series "Fame" are based), Othello is more than a role: In many ways it is a reflection of his own rise through the ranks of the theatrical world.

Raised in Harlem, James attended predominantly white schools, had white friends and generated his own share of animosity and envy as he moved up the ladder.

Yet "Othello" remains one of the few classics where a role for blacks is virtually guaranteed.

In the play, Othello is pitted against his own ensign, Iago, an Elizabethan version of a Ku Klux Klansman, a villainous, petty man trapped in a dismal existence.

Eventually, Othello and his bride are destroyed by Iago's deceit, and the final curtain falls.

Of all the Shakespeare tragedies, including Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, Othello has been the least performed. This is the Folger's first production.

Soon, the professional critics will make their own notes. They will no doubt be reminded of the last time the play appeared here, in 1981, at the Warner Theatre and featuring the powerful James Earl Jones as Othello.

Before Jones there was the great Paul Robeson, whose portrayal dominated the stage during the 1940s.

Elmore James, who has never played the role before, has his work cut out for him.

These days, James leaves the theater anxious to see what people think of his performance, and he is truly surprised when people from the audience come up to him and say they loved it.

One man said that this tragedy, first performed in 1604, was so timely that it made him cry.

Regardless of what the critics say about the play, the reception so far reflects the area's true cultural sophistication.