Monday, June 17, 2024

From Bright Lights Back to Bossier City: There Was No Place Like Home for Judi Ann Mason

by BPT Staff
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Bossier Parish History | Special to the Press-Tribune

When Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week in February, 1926 (which became Black History Month in 1976), he wanted to provide a yearly theme to help focus the public’s attention. The 2024 theme is African Americans and the Arts, including the fields of visual and performing arts, literature, fashion, folklore, language, film, music, architecture, and culinary arts. 

Judi Ann Mason was born Feb. 2, 1955, in Bossier City, Louisiana and grew up in Elm Grove, where her families’ history goes back several generations. Her father was a Baptist preacher, as was her grandfather and great-father and more generations back.  She became an orphan as a teenager when her father, the Rev. Walter Mason, passed away. Her mother passed away when Judi Ann was 8. She and a sister were raised by their older sister Viola. She graduated from Parkway High School in 1973, where she was among the first African American students to attend. Bossier Parish schools did not desegregate until 1970. The very first year of integration was her sophomore year, which she spent at Bossier High School, then transferred to Parkway for her last two years.  

In high school, Judi-Ann participated in choir, drama, journalism club and Future Teachers of America. 

As the only African-American member in many of these clubs and leadership positions, Judi Ann was already a trailblazer. She recalls classmates laughing at her dreams to attend college (saying marriage or immediately joining the workforce was the more typical plan among her peers), and they really howled with laughter when she said she planned to study speech and drama, laughingly asking, “What are you going to do, go to Hollywood?”

Judi Ann went away to college, but not too far, attending north Louisiana’s HBCU (historically black college or university), Grambling College, which a year later, in 1974, became Grambling State University, and studying speech and drama in the journalism department. While there, she saw an ad for a playwriting contest, with a prize of $ 2,500. She said, “Boy, I could sure use that money,” Mason recalled to the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1995 and penned her first play, “Living Fat,” at the age of 19.  She won that American College Theater Festival’s 1975 Norman Lear award for best original comedy. 

“Living Fat” was a comedy, which apparently fit with Judi Ann’s sunny personality, Lear later remembered in memorial articles. It covered the dilemma of a poor southern African-American family faced when the father, a bank janitor, came across a windfall of stolen money.  It was produced in New York City while Mason was still a college student. Again, while still at Grambling, Mason wrote the play, “A Star Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hole in Heaven,” a semiautobiographical play about an orphaned girl who leaves behind relatives in Louisiana for a broader education.  Her senior year in college, it won the first Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award in 1977 for best student-written play. That amazing year Judi Ann also was chosen by Glamour Magazine for its annual list and feature article, “Top Ten College Women.” 

When Judi Ann was fresh out of college, and barely 20 years old, Norman Lear hired her to work on his comedy “Good Times” when she moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in screenwriting. Later, she wrote episodes for “Sanford,” and “Beverly Hills, 90120” and co-wrote the 1996 cable TV movie “Sophie & the Moonhanger.” She became 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,” the first soap opera to have an African-American family as main characters. She also wrote the screenplay for the Whoopi Goldberg movie, “Sister Act II: Back in the Habit.” She gained several Emmys for her television work, which sometimes based her out of New York City. As the first African-American woman, and also the youngest woman (of any race) in so many of these roles, she inspired other African-American women and young playwrights and screenwriters after her. 

Later in her career, Judi Ann Mason found her calling back home in Bossier City. The Sept 20, 2000 issue of the Shreveport Times reported Judi Ann recalling that she had hiked up to a waterfall at Robert Redford’s ranch in Utah. She realized the peace she found while sitting beside the waterfall, feeling its mist on her face, was something she’d been deeply missing that she wasn’t going to find in Hollywood. She had always maintained a home in Bossier City, and she made the decision to move back fulltime, continuing her writing projects from her Bossier home office. 

Once back in Bossier, the children of some old friends asked Judi Ann if she would write a Christmas play for them to perform at their church. She wrote “Joyful, Joyful,” and the play was a hit. The kids asked her for more; she complied, and she realized she had a great love for children’s theatre and inspiring local children to find their voice and follow their dreams.  Soon she’d put together an acting team called Rock Sold T4Y (Theater for Youth). Tragically, Judi Ann Mason died too young on July 8, 2009 of a ruptured aorta. She left behind two children. 

Visit the History Center to look at an oral history interview with her brother Rev. Walter Mason (Sr.), one of several Baptist ministers who preached here in Bossier.  To be able to present the well-rounded view of American history that Carter G. Woodson promoted, the Bossier Parish Libraries History Center is always looking to add more photographs or documents of African-American life in Bossier Parish. We can always make copies and you keep the originals. We are currently focused especially on obtaining photographs and church histories from as many African-American religious congregations in Bossier Parish as possible. 

The Bossier Parish Libraries History Center is located at 2206 Beckett St., Bossier City, LA. We are open M-Th 9-8, Fri 9-6, and Sat 9-5. Our phone number is (318) 746-7717 and our email is [email protected]

For other fun facts, photos, and videos, be sure to follow us @BPLHistoryCenter on FB, @bplhistorycenter on TikTok, and check out our blog http://bpl-hc.blogspot.com/.

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