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Peter Francis James plays the lead in Center Stage's production of "Othello," but he hasn't always been a fan of Shakespeare's famous Moor.

As a young man studying at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, James recalls his tutor giving him a copy of the script and asking: "Why don't we have a bash at the inevitable?"

"I didn't like the role at the time," the tall, aristocratic-looking actor says bluntly. "I didn't like the . . . idea of Othello that kind of floats in the popular culture, which is of this really kind of violent, bestial idiot."

His mind has changed since then, largely as a result of performing scenes from "Othello" in the classroom with the Shakespeare Chamber Theater of New York, a company he helped found a decade ago to introduce students to the Bard.

"Othello has the most sophisticated language in the play," thactor says. "I think he's a mature character."

Still, this will be the first attempt at Othello for James, who has devoted most of his career to the stage but may be better known from two television roles. He played the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the PBS movie "Simple Justice," and portrayed businessman Blake Stevens for two years on CBS' "As the World Turns."

James now sees a certain mystique in the character of Othello.

"He's a star as far as the way his society looks at him," the actor says, comparing the role of Shakespeare's Venetian general in a male-dominated society to that of a professional athlete, specifically one who fears he may be a bit past his prime.

"It's easier for us to understand in terms of football," he explains. "He's Joe Montana. Othello's in a young man's profession. He's just beginning to taste the sort of mid-life crisis of the professional athlete."

This doesn't mean James will be wearing a football uniform at Center Stage. But he will be wearing a Marine uniform, since the production, under Irene Lewis' direction, features 1950's-inspired costumes, designed by Paul Tazewell.

The 1950s setting, the actor explains, is an effort to help the audience understand the relationship between men and women in the play. That skewed relationship, James believes, is even more central to the drama than the matter of race.

"It's a simple domestic tragedy. It's about a man who cannot talk to his wife," he insists.

Race, James continues, was primarily Shakespeare's way of emphasizing a larger theme -- "the uncertainty of the prowess of the male foreigner."

The theme of the outsider isn't new to James' work. It also figured prominently in his portrayal of Thurgood Marshall in "Simple Justice," which was originally broadcast shortly before the Baltimore-born justice's death a year ago and was rebroadcast in many cities earlier this month.

"Marshall's great skill was certainly his ability to make people relate to the status of the outsider," James says of the first black Supreme Court justice.

The son of two lawyers, James, 37, says from the time he was a child, he was "very aware of who Marshall was." He also knew what it was like to be an outsider. One of six children born to an interracial couple on Chicago's heavily segregated south side, he was 10 when his family moved to Winnetka, where they became one of the first families to integrate the north Chicago suburb.

"My family has been interracially married for generations," James says, adding, "My mother describes herself as the mother of six black children when asked if she's white."

James grew up hearing his father -- a Tuskegee Airman during World War II who had played Hamlet at the Tuskegee Institute -- read Shakespeare aloud. "He has a voice that makes me sound like Tweety Bird," the deep-voiced actor says.

James began acting in school productions and took an immediate liking to it, but says he never thought of it as a career. When he entered Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., he expected to follow his parents' example and become a lawyer.

But giving up acting turned out to be harder than he expected. "I thought I was just having fun with it and found it was addictive," he says. "Within months I was in terrible withdrawal."

Before his freshman year was over, James decided to apply to drama school -- or more accurately to the acclaimed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, as a kind of dare to himself. The academy "accepted me and ruined my life," he jokes.

After 2 1/2 years at the academy, James considered remaining in London, but decided he had to return to the United States. "I was 21 and had never lived in the States as an adult and felt very American," he says.

A decade and a half later, James has built a solid career at some of the country's leading regional theaters, as well as in New York, where he has appeared frequently at the New York Shakespeare Festival, in roles ranging from Pisanio in "Cymbeline" to Horatio opposite Kevin Kline in "Hamlet."

"Othello" will be James' Center Stage debut. He was attracted to the theater in part through the recommendation of Stephen Markle, a Center Stage associate artist and actor who plays Iago in the current production.

Markle met James two years ago when they both appeared in a production of "Julius Caesar" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. He recognized that he and James have a lot in common -- versatility, a sense of humor and a bond only two actors could share.

"Here we are at a certain age in a room in the middle of the night playing with guns and running around playing house, and the sense of that, and the knowledge of that, creates a kind of charm and charisma that's extremely powerful," Markle says.

The connection Markle feels with James is one reason he believes James is right for the role of Othello. Establishing a close relationship between Othello and Iago, Markle explains, is a key factor in making the play work, and that's easier when the two lead actors begin with an understanding of each other.

Acting may seem a long way from James' original career goal of becoming a lawyer. But looking back now, James feels that, for him, the law and theater are not that far apart. "I think I act for the intellectual stimulation and the effect it has on people, and I think of law the same way," he says.

This is not to suggest that James is a cultural elitist. He has never forgotten his mother's reaction when he told her he wanted to be an actor. "She said, 'I might have wished he chose something that's sort of easier on him because America's so brutal to its artists,' " he recalls. With that in mind, he has established a fairly lucrative secondary career doing voice-overs.

A recent day off was spent in New York doing a voice-over for Staples office supply stores, and his voice can also be heard on advertisements for the Dustbuster, as well as public service announcements about AIDS awareness.

"I have made more money in this business from saying, 'Does Route 70 go through Phoenix? Thanks,' for Ryder trucks, than I have made in any single endeavor," he says. "That's how you afford your bad habits like Shakespeare."


Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: At 8.pm. Tuesdays through Saturdays; at 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays, and at 1 p.m. March 9. Through March 20. (Audio-described performance at 2 p.m. March 20; sign-interpreted performance at 2 p.m. March 12)

Tickets: $10-$35

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

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