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Swim, Aunty, Swim! tells the heartwarming tale of three West African women and how swimming helps them overcome their personal problems. Anni Domingo says lead character Fatu is a wonderful role for an older actress - but only if the water is warm...

West Africa meets the West Midlands in a brand-new play premiering in Coventry this month. Written by Siana Bangura and directed by Madeleine Kludje, Swim, Aunty, Swim! explores the relationships between three West African women as they navigate the changes, challenges and tragedies in their lives.

Set in Coventry, the tale begins with the arrival of Fatu, an elderly lady who has moved to the city from London in search of a fresh start following the death of her son. Joining a new church, she becomes friends with fellow worshippers Aunty Blessing and Aunty Ama, and the trio end up following the latter’s lead to take up swimming as a distraction from their mundane lives.

“Ama finds the swimming very helpful,” explains actor Anni Domingo, who’s also a director, author, lecturer and theatre practitioner in her own right. “She persuades Blessing to go, and now they’re trying to persuade Fatu, my character, to join them. She resists for a while, but we eventually see why these women are drawn to water and to swimming. They then sign up for an open water swim, and the play is about whether they can do it and how they will survive it.”

Water and swimming are clearly crucial elements of the play, but Anni’s giving little away about how that will manifest itself on the Belgrade’s B2 stage.

“You’ll have to come and see!” she laughs. “I did say that if there is going to be water, I want it to be warm - I’m not going to swim in cold water!”

Given her many other skills and achievements - she’s got five degrees, a doctorate and is currently studying for a PhD while simultaneously writing her second novel, at the age of 74 - I wouldn’t be surprised if she jumped right in anyway, but we both know swimming isn’t what the story is really about. The relationship between the three women and how they help each other deal with their problems and issues - universal concerns that go beyond swimming caps and water temperature - are what we’re dealing with here.

“As the play goes along, you find out the tragedies and things that are holding them back. Each one has something different. For Fatu, it’s the death of her son and the way he died - she doesn’t want to talk about it, but it’s pulled out of her. [The play] is about learning how to let go of some of these tragedies - not disrespect them but be able to move on and continue to live.”

And of course it could be about any three women, not just ones who hail from Sierra Leone (where writer Siana was born, and Anni’s parents hail from), Ghana and Nigeria.

“It doesn’t matter what colour or creed, it’s about people. It could be three women from Coventry, Birmingham and Scotland or wherever. What I love about it is, yes, these three women are from West Africa and they talk about that and have jokes about the jollof rice wars [Nigerians tease Ghanaians about the outcry that was sparked in the country when supplies ran low], but intrinsically it’s about female friendship and how we support each other.”

She’s also at pains to point out that all characters in the play are actually British.

“One of the things we have to start understanding is that there are black people in the UK who have been here for generations, and older black people who were born here - they’ve not all come from the West Indies on Windrush. I was born here, and I’m in my 70s, so there you go!”

The play is set in Coventry - does the city itself have a significant role?

“It does inasmuch as the other women have lived there for years and they talk about it. Siana has lived in Coventry, so she knows it quite well.”

Do you?

“No, I’ve been to the Belgrade on tour several times but not done a play there until now. I came up for the photo shoot and got lost!”

The play is actually a big deal for the Coventry-based theatre, which is planning to create more in-house work and unveiled a new producing team last September. Developed in collaboration with leading British African heritage theatre company tiata fahodzi, the show is one of the Belgrade’s flagship in-house productions, as well as part of its creative vision to incorporate people from Coventry and the wider region.
If the actors and team involved in the production are feeling any additional pressure as a result of the surrounding hoo-ha, they’re hiding it well.

“There is a kind of pressure but not really, because wherever we do the play we have to do it to the best of our ability. I’m just really happy that we are going to be one of the first shows under the Belgrade’s new regime, and I’m very much in favour of diversity.”

Working with a number of organisations helps her further that agenda (“you can’t make a difference unless you have a seat at the table”). She is Chair of the board of Trustees at Theatre Peckham and on the board at Sheffield Theatres Trust, among others.

“I work with several different theatres where we believe in diversity, working with young people and bringing local people into the theatre. The whole purpose of diversity is bringing in different styles of plays but also bringing different people into the theatre to see what’s there. So this show fits in exactly with my ethos, which is one of the reasons I’m doing it. It’s also a fantastic role for an older actress, which is rare.”

Anni’s also passionate about theatres being all things to all people, not just venues to watch plays - not least because diversifying their offering and appeal will help them stay economically viable.

“For theatres to survive we have to make the space almost like a library but without them telling you to shush! You should be able to walk in to have a coffee, use it as a venue to meet up with friends… not just to come and see a show. It’s also important to bring children so they grow up knowing that it’s a space for them, and that continues into adulthood, because that’s the only way we’re going to survive.”

Putting on shows that attract a variety of audiences - particularly minority groups - is also key, and the West End success of the likes of For Black Boys shows the demand is there, she says.

“I think for a long time, people of certain ethnicities didn’t go to the theatre, but we’re finding out now that if you put on the right plays, then they will come - and come back again. We’re seeing that in the West End at the moment - shows that started outside the West End, at the Bush Theatre or Stratford or wherever, are coming back. Not that the West End is everything, but it shows that if you put on the right plays, people will come.”

Swim, Aunty, Swim! shows at The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from Monday 20 May to Saturday 1 June.

By Steve Adams