/ 12 November 2021

Hullo, Bu-Bye, Koko, Come In shapeshifts into another dimension

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Detonation: Koleka Putuma’s words breathe easily as the poet delivers them on stage, dressed in a white spacesuit and matching sunglasses. (Manyano Media)

On 4 November, on a whim, I went to watch Koleka Putuma’s theatrical adaptation of Hullo, BuBye, Koko, Come In at the Market Theatre Lab

Having seen No Easter Sunday For Queers (based on a poem in her first book, Collective Amnesia), Hullo … would be a winner, I figured. 

Something about the staging and the intensity of the performances in No Easter Sunday pointed to Putuma’s adeptness at pulling off a one-hander. As it turns out, I was on the money.

Even calling her new show a “theatrical adaptation” sounds grandiose or pretentious, for the poster simply announced it as “Hullo, Bu-Bye, Koko, Come In performed by Koleka Putuma”. It makes sense, for while Putuma’s poetry often ends up on stage, more important to consider is how her stagecraft influences her poetry. In beautiful ways, the new show allows audiences a chance to revel in this symbiosis. 

While much praise was heaped on the sociopolitical value of her work, in a recent review of Hullo …, Putuma also came up for criticism in this publication for delivering supposedly uneven verse. While that argument could benefit from further complication, what was abundantly clear to me, from way up in the bleachers, was that her lines are nothing if not scripted for aural effect. They have fruitful lives beyond the page and would probably be little served by being overwrought.

On stage they breathe easily. Putuma, in her white spacesuit, microphone (and even megaphone) and matching shades, knows just how to detonate them for the desired impact. At her employ, her lines took up space, becoming the inner world and sacred space of every black artist — especially those that had to endure the unforgiving heat of the white gaze.

In a Twitter thread on the book, she writes that “writing Hullo, Bu-Bye, Koko, Come In meant digging into and grappling with what it means to be black, woman, queer and a black queer woman who is also an artist in South Africa/ and the multiple negotiations I do when I perform and make abroad (Europe specifically).” But she proceeds from an awareness that she represents a lineage of women who spilled their blood so that she could inhabit that stage and invoke their names.

And the text? The text was all over us. The text was all over her. At some point she recited its lines into the microphone without reading, placed it on the floor to read from it, as if to honour its genesis as written word, and projected it all over so it could loom large. There were fragments flickering off the banners flanking the stage, and catching on every white surface. Shards of light as text and image flashing and reflecting off her costume. At carefully selected moments, poignant seconds of footage (primarily of Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie) functioned as food for thought and a change of pace. From the stark black-and-white flickering, which served to maintain an air of necessary didacticism, Putuma managed to segue, for a few kaleidoscopic moments, into playful electro interludes. 

As a work of theatre, Hullo, Bu-Bye, Koko, Come In is incredibly layered, but most importantly, accessible on multiple levels. For over an hour, Putuma is every woman, harbouring no pretences of speaking [solely] to the converted. 

Further stagings of the show will take place in December.