Judi Ann Mason dies at 54; playwright and screenwriter

Judi Ann Mason
Judi Ann Mason broke into writing professionally while still in college, when she entered a playwriting contest for the money. She won the American College Theater Festival’s 1975 Norman Lear award for best original comedy, launching her career. In addition to writing for film and TV, more than 25 of her plays were produced.
(Writers Guild of America)

Judi Ann Mason, an award-winning playwright and a film and television writer who launched her TV career on the 1970s sitcom “Good Times” and later co-wrote the 1993 movie comedy “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” has died. She was 54.

Mason died July 8 of a ruptured aorta en route to UCLA Medical Center, said Phyllis Larrymore Kelly, her manager.

“She was a trailblazer for the forward progression of African American writers,” film and television writer Tina Andrews told The Times on Wednesday. “Most particularly, she became that trailblazer for those African American women writers who came behind her.

“She was certainly front and center as a role model.”

A Louisiana native, Mason was a 19-year-old student at Grambling State University when she saw a flier on the theater department bulletin board announcing the American College Theater Festival’s 1975 Norman Lear award for best original comedy.

The top prize was $2,500.

“I said, ‘Boy, I could sure use that money,’ so I wrote ‘Livin’ Fat,’ and it won,” Mason told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1995.

Mason’s winning play -- about a poor black family facing the moral dilemma of whether to keep a large sum of money that had unexpectedly come into its possession -- was produced in New York while she was still in school.

A few months after graduating in 1977, Mason was in Hollywood writing scripts for Lear’s “Good Times,” a show she once described as “comedic filet mignon.”

“I never saw Judi Ann Mason without a smile,” Lear said in an e-mailed statement released by the Writers Guild of America, West. “She brought it to her writing and her writing brought the rest of us to laughter. She was the ultimate upper.”

Mason was born Feb. 2, 1955, in Bossier City, La.

As a playwright, she wrote more than 25 produced plays, including “A Star Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hole in Heaven,” which won the first Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award in 1977 for best student-written plays.

Her play “Daughters of the Mock” -- a south Louisiana-set story about a mock curse that a Creole grandmother has passed down from generation to generation to protect the family’s women from abusive men -- was first produced by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City in 1978 and reportedly has been performed at women’s colleges across the country.

After writing scripts for “Good Times,” Mason went on to write for shows including “Sanford,” and “Beverly Hills, 90120" and co-wrote the 1996 cable TV movie “Sophie & the Moonhanger.”

Among other things, she also was executive story editor for “A Different World,” executive story editor for “I’ll Fly Away,” and development executive and associate head writer for the NBC soap opera “Generations.”

“There weren’t many black female writers” in Hollywood when Mason started in the 1970s, said Andrews, a former actress. Mason, she said, inspired a number of African American women to become screenwriters.

Andrews, whose credits include writing the award-winning 2000 CBS miniseries “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal,” is among them.

She recalled auditioning as an actress for the daytime drama “Generations” in the late ‘80s and encountering Mason, whom she had first met in the ‘70s.

“When I saw her sitting behind that desk as somebody in a very powerful position as now a head writer, I saw what I could be,” said Andrews. “And when I later called her to congratulate her on this big, wonderful job, she said, ‘If you want to write, then write.’ She had a very powerful presence. I said, ‘You know, I can do that.’ And that’s what happened.”

As a writer, Andrews said, Mason “wrote positive, dignified characters, particularly her black characters. She had strong, realistic dialogue. It sounded like your sister, your aunt, your girlfriend: It was real, and I wanted to write like that. That’s why she inspired so many of us.”

Mason is survived by her daughter, Mason Synclaire Williams; her son, Austin Barrett Williams; and her siblings, Viola Mason Johnson, Waletta “Cookie” Dunn and Willie Gene Mason.

A memorial service for Mason will be held at 11 a.m. Friday in the Prayer Chapel on the East Campus of the Church on the Way, 14300 Sherman Way, Van Nuys.

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