Nobody made an entrance like Ja’Net DuBois.
Over the course of six years as the sassy, stylish Willona Woods on the sitcom “Good Times,” DuBois would bounce – always without knocking — into the Evans family’s apartment with her trademark, “Hi y’all.”
Willona was drastically different than one of DuBois’ first roles as Nurse Allen on the soap opera, “Love of Life.”
In 1986, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she quit the daytime soap when she “got tired of going in and closing a door and going out and closing a door. I wanted to do more than opening and closing a door.”
But by the time she landed the role in “Good Times” in 1974, she was opening doors for herself and other women as she played an independent, single, working black woman, who managed a clothing boutique and lived life on her own terms.
“Willona, who came in and joked for maybe two minutes, had developed to the point of a woman who was attractive, warm, understanding, loving and responsible,” DuBois said in 1986. “I had developed a character that had started as one-dimensional.”
The actress, who won two Emmys for the animated series “The PJs,” and who recorded one of the most iconic television theme songs of all time with “Movin’ On Up,” for “The Jeffersons,” died Monday in her Los Angeles home, apparently of natural causes. She never revealed her age.
DuBois’ daughter Kesha Gupta-Fields, agrees her mother helped change the image of single, working black women.
“Working inside and running the boutique represented something special,” Gupta-Fields said. “It made her a fashion icon. She was single, and she had a few romances that didn’t work out. But she showed that black women could do it by themselves. It was OK to be a single working mother and be a successful black woman without compromise.”
Gupta-Fields said as recently as two weeks ago, DuBois and other members of the “Good Times” cast appeared together for an autograph signing session.
“I don’t have words to express how I am feeling right now,” Gupta-Fields said. “I will say that she was in great health and spirits. Still vibrant and full of life and that contagious laugh. So, this came as an unexpected shock. But she passed away in her sleep at home. God always has a plan, and we are obedient to his word.”
BernNadette Stanis, who played Thelma Evans on “Good Times” and remained close to DuBois, told The Associated Press that DuBois appeared to be in good health at the signing event.
“She used to keep us laughing all the time,” Stanis said. “She was very, very talented. If she wasn’t singing … she was creating a character to make us laugh.”
In 1986, DuBois worked in Atlanta, starring in the Jomandi Production’s musical “Showgirls,” playing Ethel.
“This particular character, Ethel, is unlike me in every way,” DuBois said at the time. “It’s a challenge. It’s different. This is a musical, but it’s a different kind of musical: heavy. It’s another whole dimension for me. It’s something I’ve never played. I’ve played happy, kooky. This is serious. I’m optimistic that it might just turn my career back around to drama where I started out.”
The Brooklyn-raised DuBois told the AJC,” that she started in the theater at 19, but first became an actress “the day a bully grabbed me in the hall in Brooklyn and tried to take my lunch money. I’ve been acting all my life. Acting is survival.”
DuBois’ early stage work included appearances in Broadway productions of “Golden Boy” with Sammy Davis Jr. and “A Raisin in the Sun.” Between small television and movie roles, producer Norman Lear saw her in a play in Los Angeles and cast her as Willona Woods in “Good Times.”
Playing the best friend of Esther Rolle’s Florida Evans, Willona was unlike anything seen in television up until that point – a funny, single, sassy neighbor who happened to be black.
During a period of the show, after Rolle and actor John Amos, who played James Evans, quit, DuBois assumed the show’s top billing, dominating season five with her storyline about the adoption of Penny, played by a young Janet Jackson.
It instantly converted Willona into a single mother trying to raise a young girl in the dangerous projects.
“I saw first hand how she broke stereotypes and changed the landscape for Black women in entertainment,” Jackson wrote in an Instagram post that was liked nearly 200,000 times.
“That spice that you saw, that was so my mother,” said Gupta-Fields, who used to run around the set as a child. “Every part of every conversation, she never turned it off. That contagious laughter. Even the snapbacks.”
DuBois, along with Danny Glover, was a co-founder of the Pan African Film Festival, which is running in Los Angeles through Sunday.
Since 1992, the festival has showcased films meant to promote a greater cultural understanding of people of African descent. On Tuesday, the festival released an image of DuBois calling her “Our Founder, Now Our Angel.”
She is survived by three children.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.