Chris Lilley and his new show Jonah from Tonga has had the full publicity and support from the ‘progressive’ media outlets in this country from the onset.
The show revives the character of delinquent school-kid Jonah Takalua form Lilley’s earlier show Summer Heights High. As well as giving Lilley’s new six-part series a prime time spot, the ABC have bought up advertising space so the massive image of Lilley in brown-face can greet commuters on their way home.
Fairfax are also well behind Lilley, calling his new work “genius” and “his best work yet”. They also dedicated the front page of The Guide earlier this month to the image of Lilley in his brown-face and fake curls clinging to a coconut tree with the headline ‘From Tonga with Love’.
Missing from Fairfax’s blaringly one-sided positive coverage of the new show is any discussion on Lilley’s role as a white-person in contributing and enforcing racial stereotypes and the historical connotation of brown-face.
Criag Mathieson and John Birmingham were the two white males writing raving articles on Lilley’s work for The Age over the last few weeks. Birmingham suggested that many viewers might not like the show because it, “Offends their old world sensibilities”, which seems a bit ironic for reviewing what could be seen as a 21st century minstrel show.
In Mathieson’s article Lilley is quoted as saying, ”Certain characters, I finish a show and I think, ‘There’s no way I’m leaving them there’. I love them too much and I want to come back and explore their world. Jonah was always going to come back – he’s a great character and I’m obsessed with that whole culture he’s from.”
Prominent community member Meliame Fifita who is a presenter for the SBS Tongan program has slammed the show as, “Degrading to us Tongan’s”. She said she was also disappointed that the show’s producers who visited her two times last year to learn about Tongan culture didn’t take on board what she had said.
ABC head of comedy Rick Kalowski has said that he didn’t think the show could fairly be categorised as racist. “Jonah from Tonga plays with stereotypes, but it’s doing so to make an observation about the narrow-minded attitudes expressed by some of its characters, including Jonah’s own. Indeed, prejudice by and against Jonah is clearly shown to be at the root of the problems he faces in the series,” he said.
Lilley is regularly described as a ‘daring’ comedian who pushes the boundaries. In the past he has donned black-face to play his African-American character Smouse and he has done yellow-face for two separate characters.
Polynesian writer Mogan Godfery in his article for Overland suggested that the show runs the risk of reinforcing Polynesian stereotypes even if the aim was to critique them. “A white man in brownface is too loaded to make an effective point.”
“In twenty-first century Australia a white man in brownface is the primary depiction of Polynesians in popular culture. I can’t be the only person who sees a problem there. I doubt Lilley asked himself why he needed to be the person telling the story,” he said.
Godfery added, “The fact that Lilley can win praise for racial cross-dressing might be the best satire of Australian racism.”