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Superman's Big Break

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Less than a minute after the conclusion of the early performance of his play last Saturday at the Victory Gardens, David Alex has left his seat and taken a position in the lobby. Alex seems to know most of the 50 or so audience members who shuffle out of the theater. A woman shakes his hand. "Thanks so much for coming down," Alex says. "It was good seeing you again." Another woman gives him a hug. "Well thank you," Alex says. "Wow, this is a lot like a receiving line."

A teenage girl takes her turn. "Mr. Alex," she says, "that was great."

Alex, a math teacher by trade, is enjoying his first professional production: his play Ends has been given a two-week run. He's come to the performance dressed unremarkably except for his trademark Superman belt buckle.

"I am Superman," he says by way of explanation. "People can address mail to Superman-- Hoffman Estates High School, Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and I will get it. They recognize me immediately. The Lone Ranger is even more of a hero to me than Superman. Paladin, on Have Gun, Will Travel--you don't have heroes like that anymore. There was right and there was wrong, and people did right. So I try to keep that tradition going on, and I wear the belt buckle every day, and there's nothing like the first day of a freshman class, when I walk in with the belt buckle, and I never refer to it. You can just see people going nuts. On tests, when kids write down the name of their teacher, they put 'Superman.'" Alex also coaches track.

Ends is the story of Kingsley, a 26-year-old African American man who lives alone in a cabin in the wilderness. Kingsley is discovered during a thunderstorm by a white camper named Frank Glober, who has recently returned from an early tour of duty in Vietnam and is stuck in a workaday office job. Kingsley, who hasn't seen anyone for 14 years, has gained all his knowledge about life from reading authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, subsequently naming all the objects in his cabin after characters in black history. Glober's experience, Alex says, is more earthy. "Glober," he says, "is global."

It has taken Alex several years to get his "sociopolitical drama" produced. "What happened to me is like a Cinderella story," he says. For three years he attended Victory Gardens' Reader's Theater, listening to the works of other beginning playwrights. Finally, he handed in a draft of his play and it was accepted for a reading. The play received a favorable response, and the theater sent Alex off to write another draft. He worked on it for a year, then submitted it to the theater's Night of Scenes, where segments of plays are performed for test audiences.

"The audience liked it," Alex says, "but they were also engaged by its moral dilemmas. For instance, when people went to see Oleanna, it wasn't like, 'OK, the butler did it, now what do you want for dessert?'"

But the play still needed work. Alex received a $5,000 grant from the Illinois Arts Council and approached Victory Gardens, who agreed to do the play as an Actors' Equity workshop, with a limited number of performances. "This is a work in progress," Alex says. "That will be on my epitaph now: Another Final Revision. Every time I cut it, it gets better. Well, gee, I'm a math teacher. By the time we get to zero, we'll have a great play."

The version being produced ends with Glober moving in with Kingsley. In one early draft a tree fell during the second act, destroying the cabin. In another Glober was devoured by a mountain lion.

Alex has just started work on a new play, which he says is set in 600 BC, "during the Babylonian captivity." He has written a number of other plays, including River and Sky, which received its world premiere at Hoffman Estates High School, and On to Infinity, about a mathematician and long-distance runner who, while searching for the secrets of the universe, falls in love with a dying English teacher. He swears the play's not autobiographical.

When Alex was growing up in Rogers Park and attending Niles West High School in Skokie, he never participated in sports and spent most of his free time reading, primarily Emerson and Thoreau, who remain his favorite writers along with Ayn Rand. "When I was younger I was seen by people as, I don't know, different or a loner. I mean, I don't walk around in a skirt or wear five earrings on my lower lip. It's just the way I am--I never worry about impressing people."

After high school Alex attended Bowling Green University, where he received a dual degree in math and English. Then he got a master's in education and taught for three years before enrolling in the Peace Corps. He was sent to Saint Vincent's, in the West Indies, where he taught math and managed an evacuation center after a volcano threatened to erupt. He also became proficient in dominoes.

"I ran into a local man who was very good," Alex says. "And it was just like Zorba the Greek--'Can you teach me to dance?' For the next six weeks we never played less than five hours a day. I don't play a lot of games, but the ones I play, I play. I'm not a Nintendo, big-games person. I'm not really a mathematician-actuary-Mensa kind of person."

Living in the town where he teaches, Alex says, shapes how he treats his students. "I see students outside of class, in shopping malls or on the street, and you see these same people who maybe schools or authority figures perceive as deadbeats and losers, and outside of school they are great people, wonderful people. Besides the military, there aren't many places more authoritarian besides schools, and some people don't function in that environment. To me, students are people, just like my characters are people."

The subject of Alex himself will often come up in class. "Sometimes my kids give me a hard time about my clothes, because they're somewhat old-fashioned," he says. "But I'll tell them, look, plaids are coming back, bell-bottoms are coming back, what goes around comes around, right?"

He also tells them that he's never had a beer. "No, I say, I never had any reason to. I don't eat pickles either. It's not for any moral reasons--I don't believe that if you drink, you're going to burn in hell, because there is no hell, but that's another story. Peer pressure comes up, and I say, that's easy, peer pressure isn't a pressure, because I have no peers."

The Victory Gardens lobby is starting to clear out, but at least two dozen people are still standing around. Paul Robeson songs are playing in the background; Robeson is mentioned several times during Ends. The remaining audience members, many of them from the Hoffman Estates track team, are waiting to have their picture taken with Alex on the set. Alex has worked hard to fill the theater, inviting students, friends, former students, parents of students, as well as the entire staff of Hoffman Estates High School.

A woman comes up to Alex and puts her arm around his shoulders. They look toward the camera. "David," the woman says as the flash goes off, "the play seems different from the Night of Scenes. It's better."

"Well," Alex says, "thank you very much, thank you so much."

A boy wearing a letter jacket approaches Alex and points at the ceiling. "That music, Mr. Alex," he says, "that's Paul Robeson singing, isn't it?"

"You might think so," Alex says, turning to respond to someone waving to him. He looks over his shoulder at the student and winks. "Actually," he says, "that's really me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.

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