Snapshots of her youth: Performance offers colorful look at artist’s early life in ‘MY BRONX’

For many years, Terry Jenoure worked primarily as a musician; she’s a talented jazz violinist and singer who has played with the likes of Archie Shepp and John Carter. Then came a phase as a college professor, during which she taught other teachers about ways to incorporate art and creativity in their curricula. She also wrote poetry, created dolls from fabric and other materials, and curated art exhibits.

Now Jenoure, the longtime artistic director of the Augusta Savage Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has found a way to meld many of her artistic impulses and experience in a multidisciplinary theatrical show.

“MY BRONX,” which opens Friday at the ArtsBlock in Greenfield and runs through Sunday, is an unconventional theater piece that’s been designed around Jenoure’s poetry and music, offering a colorful look at her childhood and teenage memories of growing up in the Bronx in New York City. She and Linda McInerney, the director of Old Deerfield Productions, have worked that material into a narrative that’s told through words, music and dance.

Jenoure is joined on stage by a longtime friend and collaborator, New York dancer and movement therapist Maria Mitchell, and Amherst drummer and percussionist Bob Weiner, both of whom have created their own artistic responses to Jenoure’s material, based on basic direction from her but also on their own interpretations of her words and music.

“I’ve always been interested in different ideas and means of expression, and my identity is as an improviser,” said Jenoure, who lives in Greenfield. “And I like to work with people who think the same way. ... I wanted see what Lisa and Bob would come up with that could surprise us.”

McInerney, whose company last year produced “Truth,” an opera based on the life of abolitionist Sojourner Truth, says she’s been a fan of Jenoure’s varied artistry for years and has long wanted to work with her. The trouble was that Jenoure was usually busy performing in Europe, or teaching at a former position at Lesley College in Boston, or overseeing the Augusta Savage Gallery.

“I said, ‘Let’s do something here,’ ” McInerney said, recalling one of her past conversations with Jenoure. “ ‘The world knows you, but not your hometown.’ ”

McInerney, who began collaborating with Jenoure last fall on the material for “MY BRONX,” says the piece “has so many levels. It’s colorful and personal, it has music and dance and spoken word, it has these remarkable dolls Terry makes that become part of the performance. ... It’s where [Jenoure’s] creative being really comes together.”

Telling the story

Jenoure, who earned a master’s degree and doctorate in education at UMass, said the opportunity to work with McInerney developed in the last couple of years, after she left her longtime teaching position at Lesley College to spend more time in the Valley and to concentrate on her varied artwork.

“It was kind of a scary thing, financially and otherwise, a big decision,” she said. “But I wanted more time to write, to compose music, to think about these ideas I had and try to focus on what was important to me. ... I started writing a lot of new poetry, and I kept asking myself, ‘What is the story I’m trying to tell?’ ”

As it turned out, much of this work was tied to memories Jenoure had of growing up in the Bronx, going to school, and of members of her family, whose roots are from Puerto Rico and Jamaica. She turned over about 30 poems to McInerney, and the two began thinking of ways to use it in building a continuous narrative.

Jenoure notes that “MY BRONX” is not a step-by-step biography, but a series of sketches and snapshots of her youth. “The stories I’m telling are not literal ones, and the way we tell them varies.”

McInerney says that in her role as a “curator” of Jenoure’s poems, she looked for different means of expanding the storytelling experience by adding Jenoure’s violin and various kinds of movement, as well as bringing in other performers. “We started talking about ways we could move in Maria [Mitchell], about what other sounds we could bring in,” she said.

For Jenoure, making Mitchell a part of the production was an easy choice: The two have collaborated many times before, including in some performances in which Jenoure has recited her poetry and played her violin while Mitchell danced. “The difference this time is I’ve never tied all these things together in a theatrical piece,” Jenoure said.

Finally, Jenoure enlisted Weiner, the Amherst drummer, knowing he was familiar with the Caribbean music she’d heard when she was growing up. She calls him both a skilled accompanist and “a sensitive human being” who’s brought a wealth of sounds to the production.

“MY BRONX,” which runs a little over an hour, has an important visual component as well: an art installation built around the handmade, mixed-media dolls Jenoure has crafted over the years, including some life-sized ones she dances with during the performance. Some of those dolls, which Jenoure has previously displayed in exhibitions, will be available for sale after the shows, as will her poetry.

McInerney says “MY BRONX” will travel to Florida and Cuba next March for performances, and both she and Jenoure hope they can take the show to other parts of the country, or to Europe at some point. Both see the production as a key blend of what McInerney calls “structure and improvisation,” as well as an invitation to audience members to think of creative ways of telling their own stories.

Jenoure says she’s not sure what her next artistic venture will be. But after focusing on one medium as opposed to another over the years, working on “MY BRONX” has inspired her to think of other ways of blending her art: “At the moment, I’m very happy to bring all these things together in sort of a delicious mix.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“MY BRONX” takes place Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at ARTSBLOCK, 289 Main St., in Greenfield. Tickets cost $15 and are available in advance at www.olddeerfieldproductions.org and at the door.