New Jewish Theatre celebrates 20 years

NJT staged ‘From Door to Door’ in 2005. File photo

BY Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Kathleen Sitzer, the founding artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre, jokes that audiences know her as the person who gets up in front of every performance, gives a curtain speech and reminds them to turn off their cell phones.

But this season — the NJT’s 20th — is so special to her that she will return to the stage to star as Daisy in “Driving Miss Daisy,” one of the most loved shows NJT has performed in the past two decades.

She’ll play a wealthy, elderly Jewish woman in Atlanta with J. Samuel Davis as her African-American chauffeur.

“It’s a play I couldn’t resist, and it has the role of Daisy,” she said. “It’s a very appropriate role for me at this stage of my life.”

To celebrate the special 20th season, a gala preseason event for the community will be held Sept. 3 with performances by top local dramatic actors, comedians and other talent. Guests will be able to sip wine and savor desserts. Tickets need to be purchased in advance.

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The New Jewish Theatre season opens in October and will bring back two of its most popular plays of the past 20 years. Besides “Driving Miss Daisy,” NJT again will offer “Never the Sinner,” a drama about the 1920s scandalous murder of a 14-year-old boy by two Jewish college students, Nathan Leopold Jr. and Robert Loeb, and their courtroom defense by Clarence Darrow.

The season opens with  “Golda’s Balcony,” about the life of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

“It’s a very strong play and strong statement of who we are and what we’re trying to do at New Jewish Theatre, to examine universal themes and issues reflected through the lens of the Jewish experience,” Sitzer said. “The universality in this case is the conflict of what happens when idealism becomes power.”

Other shows planned for the season are “Intimate Apparel” and the closer, “4000 Miles,” a story about a bicycle trip that ends with a young Jewish man reuniting with his grandmother in Greenwich Village.

When the New Jewish Theatre opened in 1997, it built on the foundations of almost a century of Jewish theater at the Jewish Community Center. The JCC, or the J, had been home to a well-loved theater program for most of the 20th century, at different locations and in different styles. 

“Before, [the theatre program at the J] was exactly what community theatre should be — a place for the community to come together to do theatre,” Sitzer said. 

But when she was hired in 1996, she wanted to reach a larger audience, establish a strong statement and increase the Jewish content of plays.

“One of my goals was to professionalize it and give a very clear and strong Jewish focus,” she said. 

Sitzer says she believes she met her goal. The NJT has grown from a community theatre program at the J into an award-winning professional Actors Equity (union) theatre drawing on the best St. Louis talent.

It’s still at the J but has moved from the intimate Sarah and Abraham Wolfson Studio Theatre in the basement into what Sitzer calls “a fabulous state-of-the art” space, upstairs in the larger Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio.

“Before the J was renovated, we were in a reclaimed classroom on the lower level that we turned into our first small, black-box theater,” Sitzer said. 

Five or six years ago, NJT became a full equity theater, although some equity actors had been hired prior to that. The season also has expanded, to five shows that each play for three or four weeks from three shows that each played for two weeks.

Attendance has skyrocketed over the years: About 600 people are subscribers, up from 60 the first year. Today, between 1,000 to 1,200 people see each show. 

“We attract some of the top artistic talent in St. Louis in acting, in directing and design, and the theater community loves working in our space and for us” Sitzer said.

One of Sitzer’s goals as artistic director has been to reach out to the larger non-Jewish St. Louis community. One purpose is to “build bridges of muticultural understanding, tolerance, education and communication.”

In choosing plays, Sitzer often bounces around ideas with her artistic associates, Edward Coffield and Bobby Miller, and she doesn’t shy away from controversy.  

Early on, the NJT presented Shakespeare’s  “Merchant of Venice,” which has been criticized by Jews as anti-Semitic.

“A lot people think of it as an anti-Semitic play, but it is a play about anti-Semitism of a certain time and place,” Sitzer said.

Some people were not happy to see Bernie Madoff portrayed on the stage in “Imagining Madoff,” she said. And “Via Dolorosa” explored controversial themes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

“We really don’t shy away from topics,” Sitzer said. “We’re doing one this season that explores kind of a forbidden relationship, at least for its time, set in 1906.”

That show is “Intimate Apparel,” a love story about an African-American  seamstress whose true love is the Hassidic shopkeeper who sells her fabric. They know they can never be together.

“And some people don’t like plays on the Holocaust and say ‘enough already,’ ” Sitzer said. “But it’s part of who we are, and we have to tell that story.”

Occasionally, NJT will do a musical, and last season featured the well-received “Yentl.’’

New Jewish Theatre has received numerous awards, including Kevin Kline Awards, Circle Awards and accolades from well-respected local theater critics in newspapers, on TV and online.

Bea Sorkin, a subscriber since the NJT’s inception, looks forward to each new season and said she believes it has been a great addition to the arts of the city.

“I think it’s wonderful we have this in a city the size of St. Louis,” she said. “It’s fantastic and gives us all, and especially young people, insights into the Jewish people in different eras. It’s an education for all of us about what we may not know, the good and the bad.”

Most of all, Sorkin said, “It keeps Jewish theater alive.”

In 2011, Sitzer received a St. Louis Visionary Award, given by Grand Center Inc., as outstanding arts professional. New Jewish Theatre was hailed an “undisputed success story” by The Riverfront Times.

The NJT has three full-time employees: Sitzer, a technical director and a box office manager. Everyone else is hired as needed for each show. NJT covers its costs through ticket sales, donations and grants.

Over the years, NJT has performed about 75 plays, and it is ready for the next 75 — and beyond.