Chris Lilley's latest creation, Jonah from Tonga, has drawn jeers in the US.

Chris Lilley's latest creation, Jonah from Tonga, has drawn jeers in the US. Photo: Supplied

Chris Lilley’s show Jonah from Tonga has started its run in the United States to a similar reaction it received in Australia – a mixture of poor reviews and calls for its scrapping due to perceived racism.

Lilley’s decision to use “brown-face” in his portrayal of Jonah has even seen the program drawn into a controversy sparked by the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s recent production of The Mikado, the comic opera traditionally played by white actors made up as Japanese characters.

The Seattle Times’ opinion editor, Sharon Pian Tan, wrote an outraged piece  after seeing the performance.

She wrote that the “yellowface” used in the portrayal of 40 Japanese characters was as ugly and outdated as the use of blackface, which has long been taboo in American.

“A black wig and white face powder stand in for shoeshine. Bowing and shuffling replaces tap dancing. Fans flutter where banjos would be strummed,” Tan wrote.

“The opera is a fossil from an era when America was as homogeneous as milk, planes did not depart daily for other continents and immigrants did not fuel the economy.”

Though the company had never provoked such outrage with its ten previous productions of the Mikado, the piece struck a chord and soon protesters gathered at the theatre and a range of community groups joined the call for the show to be scrapped.

A story on the controversy by All Things Considered, the flagship public radio current affairs program noted that there has recently been several instances of the use of yellow face in pop culture prompting outrage. Commentators on that program were of the view that there was not an increase in the use of yellowface, but it was more noticeable now.

“The slapstick comedy drew lots of laughs. The acting, singing and production were all high quality,” she wrote.

“But this production of The Mikado is still racial caricature. It is still a show where an all-white cast (including two Latinos) plays 40 Japanese roles.  Every snap of the fan was a slap in the face.

“When people of other races don costumes and makeup to play the role of an Asian person, that’s yellowface. Racial caricature — even when done with the purest of artistic motives and sincere love of other cultures — is still racial caricature.

“It is difficult to spend three hours watching people of another race mimic its idea of what your own race is supposedly like. It’s an emotionally wrenching, viscerally exhausting experience. If you don’t feel that discomfort, consider yourself privileged.”

The program noted that Jonah from Tonga had provoked similar outrage and a call from the Japanese American Citizens League for it to be dumped from air by the HBO channel.

“Although styled as a comedy, there is nothing clever or funny about the harmful and offensive stereotypes perpetuated by Jonah from Tonga,” said the League in a statement. “Too often, bigotry and racism are employed in the pursuit of humour; when done correctly, satire can be a powerful weapon for revealing and skewering the irrationality and absurdity of the racist ideas.  

“Yet the juvenile and crude characterisations in Jonah from Tonga only reveal Lilley's deep ignorance and disrespect for the Tongan people.”

This is not the only group calling for the show to be scrapped.

“The fact that the show is titled Jonah From Tonga really puts it up several notches,” Fahina Tavake-Pasi, the executive director of the National American Tongan Society, told BuzzFeed.

“The focus now is on Jonah from Tonga. It’s him and all his awful lines. It almost speaks to the fact that it stereotypes brown people.

"When you’re white trying to play brown and have never been in the community, what comes out is the stereotype of what’s underneath that brown paint: a white man’s stereotype, a white man’s racism, a white man’s perspective of our community, a white-man assumption, devaluing, all of that.”

Looking into the controversy Salon suggested that even in defending his work Lilley showed little insight into the racial boundaries he transgressed. Salon quoted him from an interview with Splitsider: “A lot of Pacific Islander kids are in prison in Australia for some reason, I don’t know why, but it’s a problem so I thought it would be cool to explore that idea that he was probably going to end up going to jail. And it seems extreme, the mentality, but it’s how it is in a lot of prisons in Australia with a lot of Pacific Islanders.”

Salon noted that in other recent cases where blackface had been employed, such as in the movie Tropic Thunder and the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the joke has been on the callowness of the white characters darkening their features.

“While this show is a greater disservice to Tongans in Australia, this type of caricature is just as harmful in America, where our only mainstream knowledge about the Polynesian culture now consists of Lilley’s character,” wrote Salon’s Prachi Gupta.