Jo Howarth Noonan, a dear colleague and friend, died in June. I wanted to share a few thoughts.
In 2008, when Topher Payne and I were in the early stages of writing The Medicine Showdown, an adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, I suggested that we rewrite the protagonist as a female rather than a male. Topher was unsure. He couldn’t quite see it. Then one day, he called, and said, “I’ve got it. Let’s do it—I’m going to write it for my friend, one the best actors in Atlanta. If I hear the part in her voice, I can do it.” That’s when I first heard about Jo.
Then we had her join us at a symposium as a reader of various parts of Enemy of the People. Our rapport came easily. Since we still had no material yet for her as the lead, she had to read stage directions and several minor characters. Even within minutes she had a way of gently giving Topher and me a hard time about under-using an actress of her immense talents. Despite the playful diva-ish posturing, she established herself as the ultimate team player: stepping forward when necessary, making a well-timed joke or thoughtful comment, or hanging back when she knew she didn’t need any focus.
This vibe continued when she assumed the role in The Medicine Showdown that had been written just for her, Dr. Hill. Productions thrive with strong, thoughtful, soulful acting—which she always brought to the table. But rehearsal processes are made easier and more fun with team players who add warmth, humor, and support to the troupe. Could you ask for more of an ensemble player than Jo? Consummate mother, sympathetic sister, saucy aunt, ribald bar-mate, provider of her home and cookies. And best of all: her advice and wisdom about the Atlanta theater scene. Jo’s presence turned our production into a real community affair. It seemed as if whenever she called in a favor (for props, volunteers, etc.), it just happened.
After the production had long closed, I called upon her often for similar wisdom about the Atlanta scene. She helped me cast two shows and a workshop. She helped me choose venues. She helped me target donors. We joked that she could consult for pay as THE Atlanta casting director—she saw everything and knew everybody. She hosted parties, replied quickly to e-mails, and had a rich presence that blended gravity and lightness always.
The last time I saw her was at a lunch spot called Southern Sweets about six months ago. She was helping me lay the groundwork for building Flying Carpet’s presence in Atlanta. And as usual, she was gently giving me a hard time—a hard time about our having an out-of-date headshot for her on our site. “I sent it to you a month ago! You ever check your e-mail?” In our final moments together, she was joking and loving and chatting and was so, as ever, so vibrant. Since I met her, she had become our Atlanta theater secret weapon. Well, weapon is too aggressive for her energy. And there was no secret about her being our Atlanta champion and ensemble member—so maybe more like our “Atlanta Public Den Mother.”
I miss her and am crying as I write this.
Oh and Jo—I finally updated the headshot.