Bridgette A. Wimberly, a playwright who made her mark in opera by penning the libretto for the widely performed “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” died on December 1 at a care facility in the Bronx. Her first staged work, a drama about abortion, was an Off-Broadway hit in 2001 with Ruby Dee in the lead role. She was 68.
Her relatives claimed that stroke-related issues were to blame.
Ms. Wimberly very recently began writing plays. If someone had told her ten years ago that she would become a playwright, she admitted in an interview with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2003, when one of her plays was being presented by the Cleveland Play House, “I would have responded that someday I’d be going to Mars, too.”
The New York Times called her “one of the country’s most powerful chroniclers of the Black underclass.” Still, her first produced play, “Saint Lucy’s Eyes,” which was presented at the Women’s Project Theater in Manhattan in April 2001, was so well received that after its initial run, it was brought back for an eight-week summer run at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village.
Through the Cherry Lane Alternative mentorship program, Ms. Wimberly collaborated with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein to create the play.
When the drama opens in a scenario set in Memphis in 1968, Ms. Dee, who was 76 then, plays a role known only as Grandma, who is getting ready to conduct an unlawful abortion on an adolescent. Later, in 1980, the action switches to Ms. Wimberly’s script, which examines the effects of that abortion and another one that Grandma is prepared to conduct.
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Anita Gates stated in a review for The New York Times that the play “is sophisticated enough to grasp that there are many truths, some of them contradictory.”
‘Saint Lucy’s Eyes’ doesn’t have much narrative propulsion. Still, according to Gordon Cox’s article in Newsday, Wimberly demonstrates an admirable ability for the leisurely growth of her characters and for speech that consistently resonates authentically.
Over the subsequent twelve years, several of Ms. Wimberly’s plays were produced before she was allowed to change the focus of her writing in 2014.
The pioneering jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker was chosen as the subject of the opera written by Swiss-born saxophonist and composer Daniel Schnyder for Opera Philadelphia and Gotham Chamber Opera. He requested Ms. Wimberly to write the text of what would become “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” since he knew her through her brother Michael, a percussionist with whom he had shared the stage.
But first, Ms. Wimberly had to get through some internal obstacles. A jazz saxophone uncle of his had a slight obsession with Parker. He had also started taking heroin, which is thought to have contributed to Parker’s 1955 death at 34. 14 years Parker’s junior, her uncle passed away at age 35.
Ms. Wimberly stated to The Times in 2015 that her grandmother detested Charlie Parker because she believed he was responsible for my uncle’s heroin addiction. “He was a horrible name all my life.”
She nevertheless accepted the task and came to respect Parker. The opera “Yardbird” was commissioned as a showcase for tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who played Parker in the opera’s 2015 Philadelphia premiere. The piece imagined the time right following Parker’s passing in 1955, during which the jazz legend was thinking about his wife, other individuals from his history, and the substantial symphonic piece he was never able to complete, among other things.
Ms. Wimberly stated to The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2015, “In the end, he didn’t compose an orchestra piece, and we weren’t going to have him write a false one.” “But I think what he left behind was the inspiration he gave so many others to be creative. He opened the doors and set the birds, people, and music free like he did with the blues. He allowed others to do for jazz what he could not do during his lifetime.
The Times’s Anthony Tommasini described the work as “a 90-minute, swift-paced chamber opera with a throbbing, jazz-infused score” in his review of the Philadelphia debut. The opera made its New York debut the following year at the Apollo Theater, where Parker had previously performed. It has since been staged by Seattle Opera, Arizona Opera, and other organizations, and the New Orleans Opera will play it in January.
In a phone conversation, Mr. Schnyder claimed that the opera required an African American and a female librettist because the composer was a white male, European.
He added that it was a fantastic match because she approached Charlie Parker’s life narrative from a very different angle, concentrating on his relationships with other women. Compared to just focus on the music, that turned out to be a lot more engaging.
She received training in medicine and spent time working at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Later, she would touch on medical topics in several of her plays, including “Saint Lucy’s Eyes” and “Forest City,” which are about Cleveland’s first integrated hospital.
She was interested in poetry and started sharing some of it in a reading club that gathered in an unfavorable Harlem theatre.
We froze when it was cold, she claimed to The Times in 2001. “We had to use our umbrellas inside when it poured. We burnt up in the heat.”
She tried out theatre as a result of the poems. She took part in a directing workshop at Lincoln Center in 1997. For a particular assignment, she created a scene; others in the class, she recalled, encouraged her to finish it; the result was “Saint Lucy’s Eyes.”
Bernadette Scruggs, Ms. Wimberly’s sister, her mother, and her brother are all still alive.
Seth Gordon, a professor at the University of Oklahoma’s Helmerich School of Drama, oversaw the Cleveland Play House’s 2003 “Forest City” production in its world debut.
In a statement sent by email, he added that “Bridgette gave voice to the tales of people who suffered subtly and with dignity, and to chapters of African American history that deserve attention.” “She wrote with an elegance that also defined her very kind soul and with a startling literary flare.”