The life and work of Atlanta actor Jo Howarth Noonan are being celebrated with a festival Saturday.
Noonan began acting in her 20s, but she put that burgeoning career on hold to start a family. When she returned to the stage, she found a surprising creative renaissance – at a stage of life when most female actors are ushered into involuntary retirement. She died unexpectedly in 2015, and now there is a foundation and a festival which bears her name.
The MoJo Fest is being thrown by the Jo Howarth Noonan Foundation, which is dedicated to creating more roles for women over 40 and promoting women in theater. This will be the foundation’s first event since its formation.
“She was somebody who came back, and she represented, in her determination to come back to the stage, the challenges that women face," board president Patrick Noonan, who was also Jo Howarth Noonan's husband, said. “And women in every profession, in every walk of life face enormous headwinds in what they do.”
The theater festival will include staged readings of five newly commissioned 10-minute plays by writers including Suehyla El-Attar, Penny Mickelbury and Sherry Camp Paulsen, as well as a panel of accomplished women who have worn many hats in the theater community in Atlanta and beyond. The festival will also include a reading of a full-length play by Margaret Baldwin.
Baldwin describes being told by an agent that women writers over the age of 28 seeking an agent shouldn’t even try.
“Because the agents only want people who are going to then make a name for them in TV,” she said. “I thought what a shame that the people who come to the most complex part of life, and are starting to see this bigger picture and starting to understand how to get through life with humor and really touch all these different aspects of the human experience, that all of a sudden those voices are not as valued.”
Playwright Topher Payne said Noonan was his most frequent collaborator.
“For a period of about 15 years, there was nothing that I presented to the world that didn’t pass across her kitchen counter first," Payne said.
Noonan’s determination in her career and standing in the Atlanta theater community is reflected in the talent the foundation has been able to gather for this first outing.
“She was the self-appointed den mother of every rehearsal process she participated in,” Payne said.
MoJo Fest takes place Saturday at the Elm Street Cultural Arts Village in Woodstock and begins at 12:30 p.m.