On September 11, 2011, I interviewed “Good Times” star Ja’Net DuBois for my former AOL Black Voices column BV Buzz via telephone. I had already met the famed television actress in Los Angeles at an event in 2005 and was just as happy six years later to have a lengthy dialogue via telephone with the star of one of my all-time favorite TV classics.
DuBois was gracious and kind, warm and engaging. She indulged my balance of being a journalist looking to offer a ‘Where Are They Now’ perspective on her, while also shining light on a new album she had released at the time.
Enjoy revisiting this classic feature I penned on this vivacious talent and I’m glad I that got a chance to dialogue with a woman who elevated how Black women were perceived on TV.
DuBois died on Feb. 17, 2020 at her home in Glendale, Calif.
She is survived by her three children Rani, Yovanne and Burghardt DuBois. Her son, Raj Kristo Gupta, died in 1987 after a three-year battle with cancer.
Ja’Net DuBois: TV’s Willona Woods Still Having “Good Times”
By Jawn Murray for AOL Black Voices
Actress Ja’Net Dubois rose to stardom as the feisty Willona Woods on the groundbreaking CBS series, “Good Times.”
The Brooklyn, New York-bred actress, who is co-founder of the Pan African Film Festival, earned two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance for her work on “The PJ’s,” in addition to an Emmy for her role in the TV movie “Other Women’s Children” based on the novel by Perri Klass.
She also won a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her work on “Touched By An Angel.”
In 2006, TV Land saluted the cast of “Good Times” at the TV Land Awards with the Impact Award.
I spoke to Dubois recently, after meeting her at the retirement party for Hollywood film publicist Roz Stevenson, and she reflected on her career, talked about giving back and discussed her new CD, “Hidden Treasures.”
The CD features a newly-recorded version of “Movin’ on Up,” the theme song for “The Jefferson’s,” which was originally written and sung by Dubois.
So you have a new CD out called ‘Hidden Treasures.’
You can only get my CD by ordering it [online], but all of that is going toward supporting my new foundation. My daughter gave that to me as a Christmas present. I had all these pieces roughly put together and she took them and in two years put that website together for me and said, “Mom, I want you to see something.” She gave that to me and it motivated me to form the new foundation. You can never give up on yourself. I’m still alive and there are things to do. You have to get my book, baby. I can’t tell you everything. It’s a story behind everything you’re looking at. Everything you see on my site has a story behind it. I want people to see it. I want to share my personal things like my art, my community work and I just want people to know me because a lot of people just know Willona and now I want them to know Ja’Net DuBois too. The website was the introduction and she did a beautiful job. I am so thrilled with that site.
“Hidden Treasures” features a new rendition of “The Jefferson’s” theme song, “Movin’ on Up.” How did you end up writing and singing that song?
You don’t get things by being approached. You get things by asking and knowing that you do know something. That’s what I instill in young people. Get prepared and learn what you think you’re going to make a living with. Learn all of it. I learned a lot about everything that I tried to attempt to do. I said to [the show’s creator] Norman [Lear], “One day, I’m going to need to do something else. I can’t just run in and run out.” My family was in New York and I was in L.A so I needed to do something else. He said that he was doing a show and I asked if I could write the music. He asked if I could write and I told him yes. I went home and learned how to write. It wasn’t a lot, but I did it. I thought what is it that I can’t do? I wrote for a couple of days and there you go.
You mentioned your foundation, tell me about it.
[It’s] called the Ja’Net DuBois Care Foundation, which is a scholarship foundation that I put together last year. There are ministries that I put together 40 years ago and I am ecstatic that I get to repeat what I did 40 years ago and now having my son and daughter running it. I am so excited.
How did you end up landing the role of Willona Woods on ‘Good Times?’
I landed the role on the show because I came to L.A. after I did television in New York. I was the first Black woman CBS regular in daytime on a show called ‘Love of Life’ in the 70’s. In 1972, I decided to come to L.A. I had been here in 196-something on tour with “A Raisin in the Sun.” I came back to try new stuff. I got a show called “Hot L Baltimore.” Don’t you know Norman Lear was sitting in the audience? He sent me a telegram saying, “I must have you in my new show.” Isn’t that awesome for me to be here for maybe two months and get a call like that telling me to come to the studio. It wasn’t an audition because he already saw the play and that was it. He invited me to do his show. That’s because I came in hot from New York and from my workshop.
How involved were you in developing Willona’s character?
When “Good Times” came along, I had the opportunity to do something that I knew had to be world changing if I could pull it off. How could I take a stereotypical situation of the 70’s and sneak in all of the things that I learned from beauty and fashion because I was a designer and a licensed makeup artist and beautician? How could I put all this together? I said, “Maybe if I transform the outfits and the makeup and hair.” When I stepped on that stage on opening night of “Good Times,” I changed things and opened it up. I was sharp and changed the whole thing. All I had to do was setup the character because the look was there and those kids worked for me everyday. I get calls and letters to this day from people saying that, “I looked at you and I had to come running home to see what Willona had on and what she had to say.” I became the Pied Piper. It was fantastic and now when I see all these beautiful women of color on that screen and they’re not looking like mammies I am so proud. I feel like I’ve had a small part in changing my people’s lives.
Are you one of those actors who don’t like when people call you by your character name when they see you out?
I like people to call me Willona Woods because I kind of named myself that. Willona was the name of the character. My name is DuBois, which means woods in French. So I asked Norman, “Can I name myself?” If you noticed, I was the only one with two names. Everyone else had one name. That’s why it doesn’t bother me because I feel a part of the creation of the name.
When you all were working on that series, did you know that it would have the impact that it did?
We knew the impact it would have because everyone there had a focus. Everyone had a dream about making it happen because everybody gave their input. Most scripts you get are written by White people basically that didn’t understand Black people. This particular show, after a few years, was blessed to have Judi Ann Mason, a Black writer from New York, on the show that made it very real. We put our input all the way down the line. There was never a week that show came on that we weren’t discussing the script as to what we would or would not say. Even though it was smiling, acting with J.J. and me being ‘ha-ha,’ there was a line baby. God had touched that show. That was a 70’s show that was gonna change the whole sign of Black people on television, the whole family unit base. If you thought about it and why is it still running after 30 years and kids are still calling me Willona. Nothing has changed because we came out of the love era. I’m speaking for everybody because I know them all, but we were determined. We would all say, “This is not good.” I know because I went through that. We had a dream and the dream was to be respected. No matter how it came over in the beginning, it was developed. I think everyone had a part in that because you’re speaking on what you know you’ll deliver into a situation. It would still be alive, it would still be encouraging and it would still be exciting to young people because it was a beautiful gift from God. It’s like [Barack] Obama coming in. It’s like the stars are putting things in line and you go with it. We got awards in 2006 after all of those years had passed. TV Land is still calling us and offering us an award. We didn’t get the big awards while the show was still going on, but we certainly got them at the end and the show is still running and my song is still playing all over the world. What a blessing to get a tribute to show what we’re really about and what art really means. It’s important and yet I had to sacrifice myself personally to not get that much money, but “give me a job instead. Give me some responsibility and let me be developed.” I want this woman to be like me, a conventional person, not a face. I think people pick up on that. The letters that I get tell me this. I can’t speak for the world, but I can speak for what I feel.
“Good Times” was a reflection of a particular time in America. Did you ever think you would see a Black man running for President of the United States in your lifetime? And how do you cope with the craziness that seems to be in our country?
I stay on my knees in prayer. That’s all I do all the time. I stay on my knees for the country praying for the right thing because I know God has his hand in it. I’m not going to try to promote, I know what God is gonna do. Right now, we should be celebrating what a momentous time it is to have a Black man running for President. Even to have a woman running for President is awesome. I think it’s time to stay in prayer and put protection around Obama and protection around what God wants us to see behind this. Did you ever dream that you would see a woman running for President in your life? Did you ever think that you would? I’m much older than you and I didn’t think so. Obama is down to make some major changes because he’s all about change. Stay in prayer is my message. I’m going to have to let you go now because I think I’ve talked to you more than 10 minutes.
You’re a living legend, I could have talked to you all day. You are too kind!
The pleasure was all mine young man.
To get more information on DuBois, “Hidden Treasures” and her art, visit www.janetdubois.com.
VIDEO: Watch this montage of Willona Woods and her entrance into The Evans’ home for six season on “Good Times.”