Obituaries

Bridgette Wimberly, Playwright and Librettist, Dies at 68

Bridgette A. Wimberly, a playwright whose first staged work, a drama about abortion, was an Off Broadway hit in 2001 with Ruby Dee in the lead role, and who later made a mark in opera, writing the libretto for the widely produced “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” died on Dec. 1 at a care center in the Bronx. She was 68.

Her family said the cause was complications of strokes.

Ms. Wimberly took up playwriting relatively late. In an interview with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2003, when one of her plays was being staged by the Cleveland Play House, she confessed that had someone told her a decade earlier that she would be a playwright, “I would have said that someday I’d be going to Mars, too.”

Yet her first produced play, “Saint Lucy’s Eyes,” staged at the Women’s Project Theater in Manhattan in April 2001, was so well received — The New York Times called her “one of the country’s most powerful chroniclers of the Black underclass” — that after its initial run ended it was brought back for an eight-week summer run at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village.

The play was developed through the Cherry Lane Alternative mentorship project, in which Ms. Wimberly worked with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein.

Ms. Dee, then 76, played a character known only as Grandma who, as the story opens in a scene set in Memphis in 1968, is preparing to perform an illegal abortion on a teenager. The action later shifts to 1980, with Ms. Wimberly’s script exploring the consequences of that abortion and another one that Grandma is preparing to perform.

“The play is smart enough to realize that there are many truths,” Anita Gates wrote in a review in The New York Times, “some of them contradictory.” 

In Newsday, Gordon Cox wrote, “‘Saint Lucy’s Eyes’ doesn’t boast much narrative momentum, but Wimberly shows an admirable talent for the unhurried development of her characters and for dialogue that consistently rings true.”

Several more of Ms. Wimberly’s plays were produced over the next dozen years, and then, in 2014, she was offered the chance to take her writing in a different direction.

Daniel Schnyder, a Swiss-born saxophonist and composer, had been commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Gotham Chamber Opera to write an opera, and had landed on the pioneering jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker as a subject. He knew Ms. Wimberly through her brother, Michael, a percussionist with whom he had performed, and asked her to write the libretto of what would become “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.”

First, though, Ms. Wimberly had to overcome some personal reservations. An uncle had been a jazz saxophonist and had been somewhat obsessed with Parker. He had also begun using heroin, the drug that contributed to Parker’s death in 1955 at 34. Her uncle, 14 years younger than Parker, died at 35.

“My grandmother hated Charlie Parker because she thought he got my uncle hooked on heroin,” Ms. Wimberly told The Times in 2015. “All my life, he was just a bad name.”

Lawrence Brownlee, right, as Charlie Parker and Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie in Opera Philadelphia’s 2015 production of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.”Credit…Dominic M. Mercier

But she took the assignment and developed a certain respect for Parker. “Yardbird” was commissioned as a showcase for the tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who portrayed Parker when the opera had its premiere in Philadelphia in 2015. The work imagined the period immediately after Parker’s death in 1955, with the jazz great pondering, among other things, his wives and other people from his past as well as the large orchestral work that he was never able to write.

“In the end, he didn’t write an orchestra piece, and we weren’t going to have him write a false one,” Ms. Wimberly told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2015. “But I feel that what he passed on was that he inspired so many people to create, he opened up the doors, he set the birds free, the people free, the music free, like with what he did with the blues. What he did for jazz itself was allow others to do what he was not able to do in his lifetime.”

Anthony Tommasini, reviewing the Philadelphia premiere for The Times, called the work “a 90-minute, swift-paced chamber opera with a pulsing, jazz-infused score.” The next year the opera had its New York premiere at the Apollo Theater, where Parker himself had played. It has since been staged by Seattle Opera, Arizona Opera and other companies, and will be performed in January by the New Orleans Opera.

Mr. Schnyder, in a phone interview, said that, because it had a white, male, European composer, the piece needed a librettist who could bring an African American and a female sensibility.

“It was a perfect match because she looked at the story of Charlie Parker from a really different perspective, focusing on his relationships with different women in his life,” he said. “That proved to be much more interesting than just focusing on the music.”

Bridgette Angela Wimberly was born on Jan. 7, 1954, in Cleveland to John and Conchita (Smith) Wimberly. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Columbia University in 1978 and later did graduate studies at Columbia.

Ms. Wimberly, third from right, and other former members of the Cherry Lane Theater’s mentorship project at a 2014 event celebrating the project’s 16th anniversary.Credit…Walter McBride/Getty Images

She was trained as a medical researcher and worked for a time at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center; later several of her plays, including “Saint Lucy’s Eyes” and “Forest City,” about Cleveland’s first integrated hospital, would touch on medical issues.

She was interested in poetry and began sharing some of hers in a reading group that met in a Harlem theater where the conditions were not always ideal.

“When it was cold, we froze,” she told The Times in 2001. “When it rained, we had to use our umbrellas inside. When it was hot, we burned up.”

The poetry led her to dabble in theater. In 1997 she participated in a directing workshop at Lincoln Center. She wrote a scene for one exercise; others in the class, she recalled, told her, “You should finish this”; and the eventual result was “Saint Lucy’s Eyes.”

Ms. Wimberly is survived by her mother; her brother; and a sister, Bernadette Scruggs.

Seth Gordon, who teaches at the Helmerich School of Drama at the University of Oklahoma, directed the premiere of “Forest City” for the Cleveland Play House in 2003.

“Bridgette gave voice to the stories of people who struggled quietly and with dignity, and to chapters of African American history that deserve attention,” he said by email. “She wrote with a striking poetic flair, and with a sense of grace that also defined her very generous spirit.”

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