A woman of “incredible generosity and spirit” is how one good friend described Jo Carson, a nationally known and prolific writer and storyteller who lived in Johnson City until her death Monday. She was 64.
“If I had one word to describe Jo Carson, she was fierce in everything she did, and found amusement in everything,” said Jules Corriere, another of Carson’s longtime friends.
Josephine Catron Carson graduated from East Tennessee State University in 1973 with degrees in speech and theater. She spent most of her life in Johnson City, but her impact on the theater and literature worlds was recognized across the nation.
She was the author of the book Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet, a book widely used in Appalachian literature courses. Carson traveled across America, gathering stories from communities all along the way. She is widely regarded as the primary creator of community story plays in this country, a form of art that uses short stories, or vingettes to tell unique human experiences.
Other books by Carson include The Last Waltz Across Texas and Other Stories, Teller Tales and Spider Speculations: A Physics and Biophysics of Storytelling and the children’s books Pulling My Leg, You Hold Me and I’ll Hold You and The Great Shaking.
Carson also founded Alternate ROOTS, an organization of activist artists in the South.
“She brought people together and gave them ideas,” said Lisa Mount, who met Carson in the 1980s.
One of Carson’s many talents was the ability to reframe an event, thereby seeing a story many people would miss, Mount said.
“She always would see things from a very different perspective than anyone I knew,” Mount said.
She met Carson in 1988 in Los Angeles, where she was involved with the production of plays. One night she got a copy of a play written by Carson called Daytrips, which won the Joseph Kesselring Prize for the Best New Play in America in 1989.
“For unknown reasons, I read it that night,” Mount said. “Came back the next day and told my boss we have to produce this play.”
That play was Carson’s first major theatrical production. Following that play, Mount said she knew she needed to spend as much time with Carson as possible. Mount actually produced many of Carson’s subsequent plays. She credits Carson with helping form the woman she is today in more ways than can be numbered.
“She gave me room to figure out what kind of artist I wanted to be,” Mount said, adding Carson would often refer to her many friends as “strays” she picked up while living life.
One of those friends was Corriere, who first met Carson at her home town of Newport News, Va., years ago when one of her community plays was being performed there.
“It was more than a play going on,” Corriere said. “It was like a movement pulling communities together through stories.”
After attending the performance, Corriere knew she wanted to write community plays too.
“I began working with her and learning from her and within a few years I wrote my first of these community plays,” Corriere said. “She was my mentor and what made her so great in that role is that she provoked thought.”
Corriere talked with Carson often, learning much all the while. She said her style of teaching was never explicit; you had to infer a lesson yourself.
“We’d talk about stories,” Corriere said. “We’d talk about how our values and our culture are held up in these stories, which is different than history.”
One of the best lessons Corriere said she learned from Carson was to “roll with what’s happening.” That was a reference to detachment or not being caught up too much in one particular thing, because that way you will always be able to hear the next story or be open to what’s coming next.
For Carson, hearing the next story was likely one of the best parts of life. Corriere said she was not afraid to tell any story, including the one of her cancer.
“It was all about speaking what’s out there, no matter how hard it is,” Corriere said.
A memorial service will be held Saturday at 3 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 500 North Roan St.