Actor Moses Gunn was first cast as a native South African when he portrayed the chief elder of the village administering puberty rites to young Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley's memorable miniseries, "Roots."
Currently he is playing a modern-day South African trying to raise the level of education for black children in Athol Fugard's strong drama, "My Children! My Africa!" opening in the Pearlstone Theater at Center Stage tomorrow and running through Dec. 22.
In the Fugard production, Gunn is an idealistic teacher who has initiated an interschool English literature competition between two students, a black boy and a white girl. His hope is to bring about better communication between the races.
"In the play, the [black] school children in South Africa take on a mature responsibility," Gunn said. "They know their education is inferior to that of the white school children.
"Under apartheid, black education is deliberately second-rate to prove whites are superior. Black schools should be brought up to par with other schools," he said.
The play carries out this theme to its ultimate tragic end.
"The people fighting for a better cause vent their anger on those they think are informers," said Gunn. "Terrible things happen. Innocent people die. Black on black is all wrong.
"Violence is not the answer," he said. "People should zero in on the situation and correct the imbalance in society."
TTC "My Children! My Africa!" is the actor's fourth Fugard production. He appeared in "Bloodknot," "A Lesson from Aloes," and for the Los Angeles Theatre Center he starred in "Boesman and Lena" (for which he received a Dramalogue Outstanding Performer Award and the NAACP Image Award as Best Actor).
Gunn is also a veteran Shakespearean actor who has performed Othello" on Broadway and won an Obie Award for his portrayal of Aaron in "Titus Andronicus" for the New York Shakespeare and Public Theatre.
Relaxing in the new actors' lounge at Center Stage, Gunn, a quiet-spoken man, observed, "I don't like playing Shakespeare any better than a variety of roles."
"My mother was my English teacher in high school in St. Louis, Mo. She taught me to appreciate Shakespeare. She was instrumental in helping me get a scholarship to Tennessee State University where I majored in theater and speech."
In 1962 Gunn took the plunge and entered the New York professional theater scene. His first legitimate play was "The Blacks." "After that, I was not out of a job," he said.
Notable stage roles include "The Trial of A. Lincoln" with Henry Fonda and "The Poison Tree," which earned him a Tony nomination.
On the screen he has been featured in "Ragtime," "The Neverending Story," "Shaft" and "Leonard Part VI" with Bill Cosby.
"I don't know what I will do next," he said. "The Family Channel is going to rerun the entire series of 'Roots'. Cecily Tyson, John Amos, Lou Gossett Jr., Alex Haley and I will be part of panel discussions in New York and Los Angeles."
Tickets for "My Children! My Africa!" range from $10 to $30. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays. For reservations and further information, call the Center Stage box office at 332-0033.