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Siana Bangura - Swim, Aunty, Swim! Interview

Swim, Aunty, Swim! is a profound, poetic story of friendship, loss, sisterhood, motherhood, ageing, starting again, and the sublime power of water.

Translation: The same rain that beats bitter-leaf until its bitter, beats sugar cane until it’s sweet.

Fatu is in search of a new life and a fresh start. Leaving London behind, she makes her way to Coventry. There she forms a friendship with fellow members of her new church, Aunty Blessing and Aunty Ama – a fiery, entertaining and sharp-witted duo of West African women in their prime, navigating changes and transitions in their own lives.
At Ama’s whim, the three of them embark on a watery challenge. 

What begins as light-hearted fun and a distraction from the mundane routine of life and church, becomes a ritual of healing and rebirth, after a season of grieving. 

Set across Lagos, Accra, Freetown, London, Birmingham, and Coventry, Swim, Aunty, Swim! is written by Siana Bangura and directed by Madeleine Kludje.

Ahead of the show premiering at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre we caught up with writer Siana Bangura to learn more.

Where did your arts career begin?
Big question!

There are many starting points I’d say:
Like all writers say, I knew from early on that writing, communicating, and storytelling were part of my natural gifts, so I honed in on this ‘professionally’ as early as age 15. 
I was a music and fashion journalist and photographer interning at magazines, and local platforms when my head wasn’t in my school books. As much as I have always been an extracurricular geek, I was a very studious student and have always been one to balance many things at once. 
When I went to uni, I became a radio presenter, focused on new, experimental music; I wrote for Varsity and The Tab; I was a photographer in the theatre scene; and I curated events. When I graduated, I started performing my poetry and touring local poetry circuits, then published my collection, ‘Elephant’, in 2016. In 2014, I was an assistant producer for a play at Camden People’s Theatre; co-founded an arts and culture festival in 2017; was a producer at English Touring Theatre (ETT) in 2018; Artist-in-Residence at the Rep across 2019… the list goes on. I’m quite known for my DIY spirit as an artist, so between being ‘commissioned’ for stuff, I’ve always also made my own opportunities where there were none available to me. If I didn’t, I’d be waiting forever for gatekeepers to ‘let’ me in. This has helped me to build a vast portfolio work, intentionally and unapologetically multi-hyphenate and multidisciplinary in my approach. Art is for all of us. 
Were there any people or performances that had a big impact on your early years?

First and foremost, the work of Maya Angelou and Nina Simone - unashamedly rooted in their Black Feminism - has greatly impacted how I work and how I live as an artist. 
I take my duty to be courageous very seriously, as Dr. Angelou taught us. 
I take my duty as an artist who must reflect the times seriously, as taught by Nina Simone.
And my childhood hero is the late, great Benjamin Zephaniah, who I had the honour and privilege of getting to know in my adulthood. He reached out to me in 2015 when I was attacked and then stayed in touch. He supported my documentary on deaths in police custody, being connected to the project since 2017. His courage, originality, playfulness and audacity to speak on the things that matter without worrying about what the mainstream thought of him is a huge inspiration to me. Art is political, whether you acknowledge that or not. Your silence as an artist is also as political as using your voice. Benjamin was a strong advocate of that sentiment. 
I speak, and emphasise the same messages through multiple different mediums. From as early as I can remember, my mission has always been to centre voices and experiences traditionally marginalised and help pull those from the margins to the centre, documenting and archiving along the way. 
Where did the inspiration for Swim, Aunty, Swim! come from?
There are lots of seeds of inspiration for ‘Swim, Aunty, Swim!’ that stretch as far back as 2010. These seeds are deeply personal and also sharp observations of the world and the people around me. 
They include:
West African mythologies and folklores of water deities; the tragic deaths of my friends; and observations of the healing, soothing, freeing power of bodies of water. And since 2015, primarily through my campaigning work, I’ve spent lots of time with grieving mothers, and female family members who have had to become campaigners overnight, due to state violence. 
All these influences have found their way into the world of 'Swim!', where grief and joy, and darkness and light go hand-in-hand.

How did you approach writing and developing the piece?
'Swim!' has been a long time coming. No overnight successes over here.
I’ve been ‘officially’ writing it since 2018, when the first bits of dialogue between my characters ‘Ama’ and ‘Blessing’ took seat in my mind when I was a writer on the Belgrade’s Critical Mass writers’ programme. I then continued to independently develop the work, with support from my friend and now director, Maddi Kludje. During 2020’s lockdowns, English Touring Theatre (ETT) provided a bit of coin for an online R&D for the work. I used to be a producer there. Fast forward to now, the play is back at Belgrade and has been developed further with support from Corey Campbell and team, and now we’re here! The road has been long and winding.
The process has been a mix of lots of solo bits of the journey, and I've had to really stay motivated and not give up when I felt disheartened. Then having the invaluable support of Maddi throughout and after our online R&D, and then we've been in a deep process of re-visiting, re-writing, and developing the work some more. Even the rehearsals period has helped shape what folks will see on stage, thanks to the additional insight of the actors embodying the work and helping me bring it to life.
Draft 1 looks very different from Draft 17! And at the same time, the heart of the story remains the same, as do the core essence of my characters. 
We've also held informal roundtable conversations with women of similar background to the characters in 'Swim!', including my own mum. She's been a key supporter of the work and is thrilled to see something on stage that reflects her and other West African women in their 50s, 60s, onwards. 

Siana Bangura

How thrilling is it to be premiering the play at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre?
It feels good to have reached this point in my relationship with Belgrade. The journey between us is a long, winding one. ‘Swim!’ is very much a homegrown piece of work, returning to its first home. And I thank the late Hannah Barker - a friend and champion, and Corey Campbell for ensuring we got here. 

How have your own experiences of living and working in the West Midlands help shaped the play?
Although I originally, proudly, hail from South East London, I have been a Coventry local since my family moved here in 2012. This personal connection, along with understanding the city’s diversity, which includes a strong West African community, were all perfect reasons to set my story here. All three of the aunties in ‘Swim!’have, at different points in their lives and for different reasons, left Lagos, Accra, and Freetown for London, and then settled in Coventry and have found each other. This is very similar to my own family's story.
I myself feel pretty nomadic as a person, having roots in several places. South London raised me for sure, but I'm also very much an adopted Coventrian, finding a second home here in the Midlands and feeling very passionate about championing art that comes out of this region. There's so much talent up here and I am blessed to witness it and be a part of it. 
And spoiler alert: the location of the open water swim in the play is based on somewhere local to Cov. I had to give it a visit with my team to make sure we all had the right idea of what was involved and how things should look!
How have you found the collaboration with director Madeleine Kludje? 
Maddi is not just my director - she is my dear friend. She has taken this piece of work on wholeheartedly since she got involved in 2020. She cares about ‘Swim!’ and cares about me. 
As someone who is used to doing absolutely everything myself as an artist, it’s both a relief - and an adjustment - to feel supported. Maddi has believed in this work and in me as an artist since she first heard about ‘Swim!’; she has championed me in rooms and spaces I’m not in and has understood me when I’ve often felt misunderstood! As someone who often feels like an outsider in the arts, despite being in this game for over a decade, it’s a gift to trust that there are folks who have your back and want to see you win out here. 
Collaborating with Maddi is a joy and whenever I can give good people their flowers publicly, I sure will! 
How would you describe your writing to anyone who hasn’t encountered your work before?
I am a woman of poetry, even in my prose!
Where I can, I weave poetry into my playwriting work, as you will see with ‘Swim!’. I’ve realised that swimming is a really poetic form of physical expression!
My writing background, as with everything, is broad and eclectic. I’ve been a journalist in-house and freelance; I am an essayist; I write fiction, non-fiction and social commentary; and I document and archive the stories of my community. In my work, Black Women’s voices and experiences are centred, as are the voices and experiences of other marginalised groups I’m connected to through my storytelling, campaigning, and community organising work.  You’ll find my work in poetry anthologies, essay collections, The Guardian, The Independent, Vice, Dazed, Black Ballad, to name a few.
I write about power, about systemic injustices, and offer invitations to reflect and challenge yourself and those around you. I challenge myself and those around me all the time, to do better and see ourselves as part of a larger puzzle of humanity. I aim to disrupt anything that feels unjust, and I hope at times my work makes you feel uncomfortable. Nothing and nobody grows if we’re always comfortable and afraid to challenge anything. I hope my work offers one of many routes back to ourselves, and each other. 
What keeps you inspired?
Young people. 
I work with young people across my campaigning work and I’m reminded we lose our courage as we get older. I'm seeing it now in the people around me. You have to actively fight to stay courageous. I’m hugely inspired by this generation of young people, and the widespread students movements we’re seeing right now calling for justice for oppressed people all over the world. When I feel hopeless and in despair, seeing youthful resistance reminds me that the moral arc of truth will continue to bend in the right direction.

The cast and creatives.

I’m also inspired by seeing the pockets of local community world-building. Folks are busy experimenting across the country (and internationally) with different ways of living and being together. These capitalist systems that have their boots on our necks right now are crumbling under their own unsustainability. New options are needed and I’m kept hopeful through seeing people figuring this out together. 
As well as taking part in the new world-building, I enjoy writing about it, documenting and archiving too as my contribution. We've got to keep exercising our imaginations! 
What do you hope an audience member takes away from seeing Swim, Aunty, Swim!?
Come and see ‘Swim, Aunty, Swim!’ to belly laugh; reflect; learn; question; and heal. 

Come and learn about your neighbours, and the richness of ritual.
In this work, as in life, we hold darkness and light hand-in-hand, grief and joy live together.
This work is gorgeously culturally specific, and also beautifully universal. I hope folks see bits of themselves and people they know in ‘Ama’, ‘Blessing’, ‘Fatu’, and ‘Danny’. I have loved these characters for so long and I can’t wait for you to meet them!

Swim, Aunty, Swim! plays at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from Monday 20th May until Saturday 1st June. Tickets are available from

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