Jo Howarth, 1956-2015

Atlanta actress remembered for her warming spirit on and off stage

I've spent more than a decade sharing Jo Howarth with audiences. She was my most frequent collaborator, an actress of exceptional sensitivity and wit who lent her voice — either in production, or development workshops, or at her dining room table — to every play I've written since I was 23 years old. And on top of that, she was my friend. She kept me writing when I wanted to give up. She officiated at my wedding, and then loaded the U-Haul when my marriage ended five years later. She had a method of lovingly evaluating a situation without judgment that I will forever attempt to emulate. She believed in me. I wouldn't have a career without her. I wouldn't be much of anything without her.

We said goodbye to Jo Howarth last week, a sudden and unexpected loss, which left us reeling. I'd like to share her with you one more time.

There's so much I want you to know about my friend — how vital and essential she was to so many. How beautiful and exceptional she was. Jo was a bleeding-heart liberal from Abraham Lincoln's hometown. Her father was a three-time mayor and an unapologetic reformer in the '50s and '60s — a photo framed in her living room depicts him in deep conversation with Martin Luther King Jr.

She loved playwrights, and lived for the excitement of a new work. In Minneapolis, she read pages in the kitchen with Steven Dietz, and work-shopped with August Wilson (a rare feat for a freckled Irish girl). In Atlanta, she served for several years on the board of Working Title Playwrights, and we all exploited her talents to make us look good: me, Johnny Drago, Suehyla El-Attar, Janece Shaffer, Theroun Patterson, Karla Jennings, Marki Shalloe ... everybody got better when they worked with Jo.

She met her husband, Patrick Noonan, in high school, even appeared on stage with him. After graduation, they met for coffee once a year, until they finally got wise and realized they were crazy about each other. They had three decades together. We all envied their relationship, not because they were a model of perfection. Jo and Patrick felt like a partnership that was constantly evolving, making themselves better for each other. They made a great marriage look achievable.

And then there are her boys, Paul and Will. Bright, compassionate, creative, and conflicted — she found her kids so damn interesting. I watched as her pride and concern for them as teenagers became genuine admiration for them as adults. They were the greatest achievement of her life. Nothing else came close.

A few months ago, there was a family vacation to Africa to celebrate Patrick's retirement from Emory University. Jo told me that while she was there, she realized this was the last time the four of them were likely to have an adventure together. Later trips would add significant others, then spouses, maybe she'd get grandkids one day. So on the trip to Africa, she reminded herself that while she still had her boys all to herself, she must be present, and appreciate how rare and precious it was. She excelled at that. Being present. Appreciating moments.

Her work as a visual artist under the banner of Painted MoJo, an American folk art-inspired process she called "quilt painting," managed to perfectly capture her personality. It was whimsical and warm, but with clear structure and detail. I could go on. I haven't even discussed Jo's baking, which was legendary. Or her role as den mother for Write Club Atlanta. She was so many things.

Here's what you really need to know: Jo Howarth taught people how to fly. She would cajole, encourage, slap you around a bit, whatever the moment required. She had no tolerance for self-destruction and declined invites to pity parties. If she thought you were extraordinary and capable, the least you could do was agree with her. And in spite of yourself, you'd feel stronger, ready to face a challenge. We're reminding ourselves of those words of encouragement a lot these days. It's fitting that the only person whose wisdom could get us through losing her was Jo herself.

I want so desperately to do her some degree of justice, but there is no eloquence in grief. I feel cheated. I miss my friend, and it hurts like hell.

If longevity were based upon merit, Jo Howarth would have outlived us all. But that's not how things work. Ultimately, we can't hold on to those we love any longer than fate or circumstance allows. But her legacy, that's on us. She loved being an Atlanta artist, and was a fervent cheerleader for the work we do. We have to believe that we can be better than we are, and then turn that belief into action. We have to be as good to each other as she was to us.

And if you never knew her, just be as kind and generous as you can possibly be. Feed your friends and talk to strangers, and find a way each day to celebrate all we can create together in this city. If you do that, you'll come pretty close to following her lead.

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