As a lifelong (and aging) Good Times fan, I’ll be first to admit that growing up has given me added perspective on that classic ’70s sitcom. At six years old, I crushed hard on Janet Jackson, only five years older than me, when she debuted as Penny Woods. When I watched reruns as a teenager, the beauty and sass that Bern Nadette Stanis delivered as Thelma Evans had me wishing I’d been older in those days of bell-bottom hip-huggers. But only as an adult did I realize how hard I slept on the heart and soul of the classic show, the glue who held the sitcom together for six seasons: Florida Evans’ bestie, upstairs neighbor Willona Woods — portrayed by Ja’Net DuBois.
Ms. DuBois passed away in her sleep on Monday at her home in Glendale, California, surrounded by family. She was 74.
How many representations of black women even existed on the Big Three television networks from Good Times’ first episode in 1974 to its 1980 finale? Outside of the fiftysomething Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son, waitress Shirley Wilson on What’s Happening!! or the middle-aged neighbors on The Jeffersons (Helen Willis and Mrs. Louise Jefferson herself), there weren’t any. Ja’Net DuBois infused Willona Woods with the everyday aspirations of a high-spirited African American woman living her best life, even in the economically challenged Chicago Cabrini-Green Homes.
And she did it with style. Everyone salivating over Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter’s clothing picks for last year’s ’70s-set Dolemite Is My Name should take a look at the YouTube reel of Willona Woods’ entrances from every episode of Good Times. Suede patchwork shirts, crocheted knit caps, silk headwraps, African-print dresses, and plenty of scarves, berets, and necklaces made her fabulosity complete: Willona was on. On top of the dignity that Ja’Net DuBois brought to a sitcom that wasn’t always immune to stereotypes, she never failed to rock a look, proving every week that elegance exists in the hood.
Willona dared to live a vivacious life, a pioneering move at a time when single women in their forties weren’t expected to be happy about that singlehood.
To call Willona Woods comic relief is to miss the point. (And if anything, that was J.J. “Dynomite!” Evans’ job.) With Good Times tackling topics like child abuse, black unemployment, gang violence, loan sharks, and even death, Willona always breezed into apartment 17C to lighten the mood with some hope. She had her own issues, most of which swirled around the men she dated: Even today, memes circulate social media with Willona cutting stank eyes at wannabe boyfriends who can’t hang. Yet, she embodied unflagging optimism in the face of the socioeconomic situation surrounding the Evans family. Willona dared to live a vivacious life on-screen, a pioneering move at a time when single women in their forties weren’t expected to be happy about that singlehood.
Sitcoms starring people of color aren’t overabundant even in 2020, but the mid-’70s had a whopping quartet. Sanford and Son, Good Times, All in the Family spin-off The Jeffersons, and What’s Happening!! — the first three of which came from executive producer Norman Lear (still doing his thing at 97, most recently as a producer on Netflix’s One Day at a Time). Lear created satirical comedy that pushed racial and social boundaries of the time, and when Ja’Net DuBois approached him about new opportunities, he encouraged her songwriting talent; the result became one of the most iconic TV theme songs of all time. One year after Good Times hit the airwaves, The Jeffersons made its debut, with DuBois’ choir-backed vocals introducing the show every Sunday night.
“Movin’ On Up,” which she co-wrote, became instantly recognizable, instantly. Growing up on the 27th floor of a tenement building in the Bronx, I related to her song, not yet seeing the difference between my own high-rise housing development and the Upper East Side skyscrapers downtown. Along with Quincy Jones’ theme to Sanford and Son, DuBois’s “Movin’ On Up” became a left-field DJ pick at African-American house parties for years. It wouldn’t be her only contribution; over the next few decades, DuBois released three albums — Queen of the Highway (1980), Again, Ja’Net DuBois (1983) and Hidden Treasures (2007) — flaunting her musical talent.
Nor was her acting work confined to a single sitcom. Born in Philadelphia, DuBois relocated to Brooklyn as a young adult, ultimately landing roles in Broadway performances of A Raisin in the Sun and Golden Boy — after which she shuffled out to Hollywood. She first scored in 1970 with the CBS soap opera Love of Life, the character of Loretta Allen making her the first black female cast member on a daytime serial. But her signature role as gossipy Willona Woods manifested after Lear saw her perform in an L.A. theater production.
Even after Good Times ended, DuBois continued to blaze trails, earning two Emmys for her voice-over work as the elderly Mrs. Avery on 1990s Fox animated series The PJs. Over the years, DuBois brought smiles to audiences with bit roles in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Next Friday, and even Janet Jackson’s video for “Control,” in which the two replayed their Good Times mother-daughter relationship. “I saw firsthand how she broke stereotypes and changed the landscape for Black women in entertainment,” wrote Jackson in a memorial Instagram post yesterday. “Thank you Ja’Net, I’ll miss you.”
So will we all. Black America’s beloved upstairs neighbor will forever be remembered for transcending the sitcom tropes to portray a strong, vivacious, complex character — one who showed all of us, young and old, the power and allure of a Grown-Ass Woman.