- Jonah From Tonga by Chris Lilley
The television series Jonah From Tonga was released to low ratings and accusations of racism. Originally presented in Australia, where it was produced, it later premiered on hbo in the United States. It features Australian comedian and show-runner Chris Lilley, who is white, as Jonah Takalua, a fourteen-year old Tongan high school student. Lilley’s use of makeup and a limp frizzy wig—what might charitably be called “Polynesian face”—are easy targets for criticism, if not outright dismissal, of the apparent minstrelsy that at first glance seems to characterize the six-episode series. And if one looked no further than the phenotype of the main character, certainly this show would not be [End Page 576] worthy of discussion. However, for those who sit through all three hours of the show, a much more complex and uncomfortably important genotype emerges, one that forces viewers to contend with issues that go beyond superficial representations of Islanders in the contemporary media landscape.
It is necessary to situate Jonah within the cosmology of actor and creator Chris Lilley so that one who is not familiar does not get the impression that this character, or Lilley’s portrayal of him, is an isolated incident or occurring in a vacuum. Jonah first appeared as one of three characters played by Lilley in his 2007 series Summer Heights High. That show, filmed in the now ubiquitous mockumentary style first popularized by the British version of The Office, followed Mr G, a drama teacher; Ja’mie King, an over-privileged private school student spending a year on exchange at public school; and Jonah. The series spawned two spin-offs, Ja’mie: Private School Girl, featuring Lilley dressed as the title character in drag, and Jonah From Tonga. It is interesting to note that Lilley’s portrayal of Jonah in Summer Heights High did not engender the same type of critical reaction that this latest series has, despite Lilley’s consistency between the two series.
At the end of Summer Heights High, Jonah is expelled from the school and sent to Tonga to live with his uncle. That is where the story in Jonah From Tonga begins, and, from the get-go, it is apparent that Jonah has learned little from his expulsion, nor has he become a particularly sympathetic character. His flaws are many and manifest themselves at every possible opportunity: he swears; he is homophobic; he punches male relatives in the genitals; he has a penchant for graffiti that ostensibly spells out the words “dictation” by drawing a crude facsimile of male genitalia followed by the letters “tation” (he even tags the side of a pig) and “pussycat” (I will let readers use their imagination); he tries unsuccessfully to date his cousin; and he is prone to bullying others. But unlike Mr G and Ja’mie, who are so self-centered that they are clearly archetypes of parody, Jonah is slightly more self-aware and therefore is potentially redeemable. One of the underlying currents in the series is whether Jonah will actually redeem himself. What is surprising is that, in his way, he does.
A number of plot points woven through the episodes allow Lilley to highlight, and then puncture, particular tropes about Islanders, race, migration, masculinity, and schooling. Jonah overstays his welcome with his uncle, and, early in the first episode, his father, Aunty Grace, and younger brother Moses come to bring him back to Australia. There he attends Holy Cross, and he picks up where he left off at Summer Heights High. He leads a crew calling themselves “Fobba-liscious” and who spend their days bullying the redheaded students (called “rangers,” slang for “orangutan”) and dreaming of hip-hop stardom. The engagement with diaspora and racism is both subtle and over the top, as when Jonah takes on Gray-don, an older student and “ranger” who offers Jonah no quarter. After Jonah melts Graydon...