New leader at NJT, veterans’ stories, ‘Nuremberg’ play

At a local senior living facility, history teacher Joe Regenbogen (standing) found 16 men and women who served during or were deeply affected by  World War II; he tells their stories in the new book ‘The Boys of Brookdale.’ Photo: Ellen Futterman

Ellen Futterman, Editor

NJT gets new AD

Sometimes things just work out. That’s certainly the case with Edward Coffield recently being named Artistic Director of the New Jewish Theatre. He will replace Kathleen Sitzer, who is retiring in July after 22 years with NJT, and neither she nor he could be more excited.

“I couldn’t be happier. Throughout Edward’s 16-year association with NJT, he has been a wonderful creative partner,” said Sitzer when we spoke earlier this week. “We have planned seasons together, and discussed artistic teams for each production.

“Edward knows NJT like the back of his hand and has wonderful relationships with so many people in the theater community here. Of course there will be a learning curve, but it will be minimal. Mazel tov to Edward — I can’t wait to see what he does.”

Coffield has been Associate Artistic Director at NJT for the past 16 years. During this time, he has directed more than 15 productions, including “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding,” “Yentl” and “Driving Miss Daisy” (the original 2005 NJT production). Coffield has also served as Production Manager at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis for the past 28 years.

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“We are beyond thrilled that Edward will be leading New Jewish Theatre,” said Zelda Sparks, Director of the Cultural Arts at the Jewish Community Center, of which NJT is a part. “He’s extremely talented and knows our theater so well. I can think of no better person to take the reins.” 

At the most recent St. Louis Theater Circle Awards in March, Coffield was nominated for Outstanding Director of a comedy, and he is a three-time nominee for the Kevin Kline Award for Outstanding Direction.

As far as Coffield is concerned: “I’m plotzing. I’m beside myself,” he said the other morning. 

“This possibility was on my mind for many years, but as the reality has sunk in, I’m irrationally excited but also humbled,” he continued. “Kathleen and Zelda have built a great tradition. I am thrilled to carry it on and grow it some more.”

Coffield assumes his new role at NJT in July, when Sitzer officially retires. 

Bringing history to life

If you’re a World War II enthusiast and looking for something to do Saturday, April 21, consider an 11 a.m. book signing and reception for “The Boys of Brookdale” ($20, Sunbury Press). 

This new book, by local history teacher Joe Regenbogen, tells the stories of 16 men and women who either served in, or were deeply affected by WWII, and live at Brookdale senior living in Creve Coeur. More than half of those interviewed, who ranged in age from 89 to 102, were Jewish, as is Regenbogen.

“When my dad moved into Brookdale, right before Veteran’s Day, I saw what a big deal is made of honoring veterans here,” said Regenbogen, 61, who had written two other books and was searching for another project. “I always had an interest in WWII and started wondering how many veterans were living at Brookdale. We found 16, all with amazing stories, under one roof.”

What makes Regenbogen’s project even more compelling is that he involved his eighth-grade students at Parkway West Middle School in the interviews. Several accompanied him on Saturdays over a six-month period as they spoke to each of the veterans featured in the book separately. 

“I assumed all of the veterans would be American, but one of them, Erich Dahl, had been born in Germany,” said Tyler Kinzy, one of Regenbogen’s students who is now a freshman at Parkway West High School. “That put WWII into perspective for me. It showed how everyone across the world was affected by this war.”

Tyler, 15, said being involved in the interviews shed light on a generation he believes people his age take for granted. “This was an experience like nothing I ever had before, not just in history but in any academic setting. It makes the history you’re learning much more relatable and easier to comprehend.

“This project reaffirmed for me that history is a collection of our stories more than it is dates on the page of a textbook,” he added.

Another of Regenbogen’s students, Eva Phillips, agreed. “Hearing their personal experiences, rather than just reading about the war, made history come alive,” she said. “I was kind of amazed that they could remember stuff that happened to them during the war as if it were yesterday.”

Norma Schweig, one of three women interviewed for the book, was in the WAVES (Woman Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). She joked that when she read her chapter of the book, “I thought, look what I did. I don’t even believe it.”

Saturday’s book signing is free and open to the public; refreshments will be served. Books will also be on sale. Brookdale is located at 1 New Ballas Place.

By the way, Regenbogen is now completing a book about Jewish St. Louisan Irl Solomon, who taught in the East St. Louis public schools for 38 years.  

“This time instead of 16 heroes, I’m focusing on one,” Regenbogen said, adding that he expects the book to be out in a year.

Being judgy

On the subject of World War II, the Midnight Company is presenting the courtroom drama “Judgment at Nuremberg” in the Lee Auditorium of the Missouri History Museum, Wednesday, April 25 through Sunday, April 29. The play, by Abby Mann, depicts the second wave of post-WWII trials at Nuremberg, as influential German judges who cooperated with the Nazis face a military tribunal.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $18-$20; $13-$15 for museum members and can be ordered at mohistory.org/judgment-at-nuremberg.