by G. Brown
The 1970’s sitcom “Good Times” may have centered around the Evans Family, but many viewers only tuned in for their neighbor Willona. It was a role that Ja’Net DuBois seemed to born to play which the show’s creator must have thought when casting her as Willona Woods–the often nosey, usually fashionable and always quick on the draw with wit neighbor to James and Florida Evans and their kids JJ, Michael and Thelma.
“Good Times” was a pioneering show during times that were still pretty bad for Black actors who wanted more than roles as maids, cooks or drug dealers. The show didn’t exactly break the stereotyping mold but leaned into a lot of common stereotypes of Black people. The family never could never catch a break and was always broke even with half the family working they still live in the projects. Each episode was a reflection of the show’s theme song with central characters ‘scratchin’ and surviving’…facing ‘temporary layoffs’…dealing with ‘easy credit rip-offs’, but by the end of thirty minutes, they were ‘Hangin’ in and jivin’ and singing “Ain’t we lucky we got ’em-Good Times.
In spite of it’s bleak, overall stereotypical Black family in the ghetto storylines, “Good Times” did shape the mold of Black Family. Starting out with a loving couple as strong and dedicated parents. Nefarious types like Lootin’ Lenny were written in as comic relief, but the main characters like Willona often were the heart of the show. After John Amos and Ester Rollen departed from the show, DuBois’ Willona became the parental figure even adopting a child (Janet Jackson) who was being abused at home.
Before audiences tuned in each week to see Willona, DuBois was already on the path to success. She began acting on Broadway where she appeared with legendary performers like Sammy Davis Jr, and Louis Gossett Jr in “Golden Boy”.
In the late 60’s she made the leap to TV where she became the first Black female to land a role as a regular cast member on a soap opera (Love of Life). By the 80’s and 90’s, DuBois became a staple on sitcoms like “Martin”, “The Facts of Life”, “Sister Sister” and “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper.” Film roles include, 1970’s “Diary of a Mad Housewife” and “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” in 1988.
Away from the stage, DuBois kept her personal life out of the spotlight. The mother of four children, little else is publicized about her outside her career. But fans knew enough about her on camera to know that they will miss what she contributed to stage and screen.
To the beautiful, and most talented that is Queen Ja’net DuBois, one of my ABSOLUTE favorites. Rest in Heaven💙 DAMN YOU 2020, DAMN YOU!! We’re losing some greats this BHM🥺 #JanetDuBois pic.twitter.com/HgklkJcfEw
— Jigga♐️ (@jaixo__) February 18, 2020
The greatest neighbor in the history of sitcoms. No need to say fight me. You’d lose. In a world where the word “icon” is overused, please behold a real one. No one entered a room like this woman. RIP Ja’net. Willona, however, will never die. #janetdubois #goodtimes pic.twitter.com/B0FLivT5dl
— Dominick Pupa (@DominickPupa) February 18, 2020
— racsi s (@racsi_s) February 18, 2020
Other celebs joined in to pay tribute to DuBois including DL Hughley and actor Orlando Jones. Singer Janet Jackson who played Dubois’ adopted daughter Penny on “Good Times” says, ” I am so very saddened to hear my longtime friend Ja’net Dubois has away. K saw first hand how she broke stereotypes and changed the landscape for Black women in entertainment.”
DuBois reportedly died unexpectedly at her home. She was 74. She embodied the word entertainer as a singer, actor, and dancer. To paraphrase the title of one of her recorded albums, DuBois was indeed a “Hidden Treasure”.
Rest in paradise, Ms. DuBois.