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Black plays send shrill message to S. African whites

In the back room of a warehouse on a dimly lit street in this city, three black men debate the depth of their commitment to the liberation struggle in South Africa.

An underground cell for some revolutionary group?

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No - it's a taste of black theater in South Africa. And black theater here is presenting an increasingly shrill warning about the consequences of this nation's racial policies.

At this performance of ''Night of the Long Wake'' by Dukuza Ka Macu, the final scene finds the main character taking the gun from a soldier who has invaded his home during the Soweto riots of 1976 and turning the gun on the invader.

It is not an unusual spectacle. The stage is fast becoming one of the main vehicles of political expression for blacks in South Africa, partly because the white government prohibits other, more straightforward forms of political activity.

Some whites are listening to this angry message from the black theater world. Their numbers are small, but growing. And black theater is becoming, very gradually, more accessible to white patrons.

This performance of ''Night of the Long Wake'' is taking place at the Dhlomo Theatre, just opened in one of the most popular theater-going areas of ''white'' Johannesburg. And Dhlomo is the only theater fully run by nonwhites in South Africa, according to founder Benjy Francis.

Dhlomo Theatre is drawing a nightly crowd of 20 or so, most of them blacks and Indians. Although Francis, an Indian, would like to see larger audiences, he is not particularly concerned with gaining white acceptance of his plays.

''Our audience is South African, which means it is mixed racially,'' Francis says in his second-floor office above the theater, which used to be a warehouse for meat carcasses. He adds: ''Our thrust is a black (nonwhite) audience.''

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Around the corner from Dhlomo Theatre is the commercially thriving Market Theatre, which is run by whites but often puts on black plays.

Opened in 1976, the Market has been fairly successful in bringing white audiences face to face with theater that pricks their conscience. Plays written, acted, or directed by blacks are almost always on tap, albeit often in the theater's smallest hall.

Right now, ''Master Harold and the Boys'' by Athol Fugard is playing to packed audiences at the Market. Though basically autobiographical, the play underscores the crippling effects South Africa's apartheid system has on human relationships.

The Market Theatre, along with the Space Theatre in Cape Town, pioneered the process of presenting plays dealing with blacks to white audiences in South Africa.

Mannie Manim, director of the Market, says black theater today is ''on the brink of being able to challenge for audiences in the big theaters.''

Still, many blacks involved in theater do not attach much importance to the Market Theatre, which they see as a white liberal institution that leans toward a white perspective on the predicament of blacks.

''They play it safe,'' says Francis, who has worked at the Market Theatre.

Black theater continues to play mainly in South Africa's townships. One of the most commercially successful black theater producers is Gibson Kente, who has been entertaining black audiences since the late 1960s.

In Kente's view, the main problems with black theater are a shortage of talent, owing to the inferior black educational system, and an absence of any permanent theater establishments in the townships.

''When the government develops a township, the first priority is a police station, the second is a beer hall. Entertainment is never even considered,'' he says.

Consequently, Kente, his actors, and stagehands live a carnival-like existence, moving almost nightly to new locations, where they roll in by bus, set up the lights, sweep the floor, and open for business.

Lacking theaters of their own, blacks in the townships must apply for permission from government administration boards to use other venues, like schools or recreation halls. This opens the way for censorship, because scripts must be submitted as part of the application. The government has banned three of Kente's plays.

The increasingly overt political tone of black theater, despite the ever-present possibility of censorship, may be indicative of what a local critic called the ''raw anger'' of the black community. But others are concerned it is too limited.

Author Ezekiel Mphahlele, who was involved in black theater in the 1950s, says, ''Because public politics has been banned, the black community looks for ways to express itself and the stage has become the outlet.'' He fears black theater is ''becoming too raw, losing the nuances of human behavior.''

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