Robert Alexander doesn't look like an outraged man. Intense, yes. Charismatic, sure. But when asked what has motivated him to spend 22 years working with black children, handicapped children and incarcerated children as director of the Living Stage Theatre Company, his face grimaces and he says sharply and with conviction, "My outrage keeps me getting up each day."
He is angry.
"I cry in protest at what is happening to the children of South Africa," Alexander says. "But you just can't close your eyes to the horror of what is happening to black children in D.C. The 9-, 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds languishing in Cedar Knoll and Oak Hill reformatories, with no parents and no love, yet yearning for dignity and respect. I just can't accept this kind of inhumanity."
He sighs, sits back and tries to calm down. But he can't. Around the Living Stage theater at 14th and T streets NW, Alexander sees the carnage of poverty and the effects of drug and alcohol abuse. His only solace comes from knowing the secret for stemming the tide of this madness, and he has dedicated his life to spreading the word.
"The whole business is imagination," he says sternly. "I know that if you change a person's perception of himself or herself, then they immediately start making different choices. You get a 15-year-old boy who can't read and you say, 'Hey, man, it's not your fault. You're not dumb. The schools did not fulfill their responsibility. But now you have to take corrective action because you can be anything you want to be.' With that, a transformation takes place and he begins to dream again, and starts to work to validate that dream."
At 58, Alexander has spent 42 years in theater, 35 of them working with children. There is so much work to do, he says, so many children to save, so little time.
"I can't tell you how many times I've been in situations where the fate of children was being discussed and there were no children present," he says. "We talk at them, but we never ask them what they want."
Alexander founded the Living Stage in 1966 as a way to change that. Set up as the community outreach company of the Arena Stage, it is a unique, must-be-seen-to-be-appreciated operation that has won the praise of local schools, churches and parents alike.
It works like this: The theater community relations director goes out and finds a group -- say, inmates, regular students or mentally disturbed children -- who might benefit from participating in a theater workshop. Together with a group of professional actors, the group picks a theme -- say, drug abuse -- and creates the outline for the theater production.
The professional actors begin improvising, then suddenly stop, and the audience is asked how it would like to see the play end.
"Everybody gives an ending and we try to work it into the play," Alexander says. "Seeing your vision validated on stage is really something. It's funny, too, everybody wants a happy ending."
Alexander's efforts have earned him national recognition, including an award last week from the D.C. Mayor's Commission on the Arts and Humanities. But accolades are something he rarely mentions. Instead, he is turned on by the children he serves.
"We took some kids to the Guggenheim Museum the other day and it was something to watch the children getting into those paintings, making up stories, making up poems and crying with empathy at what the artists had done," Alexander recalls.
"In terms of human values, the neediest children are also some of the smartest kids I know," he adds. "They care so much about their universe. They want so desperately for things to turn out right, yet we lock them up, throw away the key. They know they are living on a one-way street to jail; just look at the incarceration rate in this city. But all they need is little armor -- and that is the belief that they can make their dreams comes true."