The Writers Guild announced just now that TV/film writer and playwright Judi Ann Mason died last Wednesday of a ruptured aorta in Los Angeles. She was 54. The following comes from the WGA news release:

Described as a “trailblazer”, Mason joined the WGAW in 1975 and continued the legacy of Helen Thompson, the Guild’s first African-American member. “As did Thompson, many fellow black and women writers over the years were inspired by Mason’s decades-spanning career in television, film, and on the stage. Writers Guild Award-winning writer Tina Andrews notes about Mason, ‘So many of us are here as writers because she was there first willing to assist our journeys. I thank God I had her powerful shoulders to stand upon.’”

The Shreveport, Louisiana native and Grambling State University alumna began in theater and penned over 25 published and produced plays such as: Living Fat, for which she won the Kennedy Center’s Norman Lear Award for comedy writing at only age 19, and A Star Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hole in Heaven, garnering her the first Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award in 1977. She also became one of the youngest playwrights – of any race – ever to be produced Off-Broadway. Last fall, she served as inaugural national honorary chair of the First Southern Black Theatre Festival, held in Shreveport. In addition, she was lauded for her latest play Storm Stories: True Dramas of Hurricane Katrina.

She was also a successful television writer/producer. Her career in television began at barely 20 years old after being hired as a writer on the CBS hit Good Times by TV legend Norman Lear. Her other TV writing credits include writing or co-writing for primetime network shows such as A Different World (NBC), American Gothic (CBS), Beverly Hills 90210 (FOX), Sanford (NBC), and the Emmy-nominated series I’ll Fly Away (NBC). Her telefilm credits include Lifetime’s Sophie & the Moonhanger (teleplay by Sara Flanigan and Judi Ann Mason, story by Sara Flanigan). In addition, she wrote on daytime serials, as Head Writer for the Writers Development Program at Guiding Light (CBS), later becoming Associate Head Writer on Generations (NBC), the first soap about an African American family.

Mason’s screen credits include co-writing Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (written by James Orr & Jim Cruickshank and Judi Ann Mason, based on characters created by Joseph Howard). In fact, before this unexpected tragedy, Mason was in the midst of working on her independent film scheduled to shoot in December called Motherland, about a college history instructor taking middle-class African American students to Africa. Mason also found time for academia, sharing her writing and producing knowledge as a visiting professor at such institutions as the University of Florida and the University of Louisville.