Australian comedian Chris Lilley has played a black American teenager, a Japanese mother and entrepreneur, a white Australian grandmother, a Tongan-Australian teen and many more characters throughout the years.
Lilley’s latest show, “Jonah From Tonga,” features one of the characters from his beloved “Summer Heights High” — Jonah, the aforementioned Tongan-Australian teen — and has angered the Tongan community enough that protesters have launched a campaign against the show.
Nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org to stop HBO from airing the series, which they feel perpetuates racist stereotypes against Tongan people through the use of brownface.
The six-episode series is the least favorably reviewed of Lilley’s shows, but not the first to garner backlash. He donned blackface to play S.mouse in “Angry Boys,” yellowface to play Jen Okazaki in that same series, spawning protests against both characters.
He said at the time of the “Angry Boys” U.S. premiere, “The idea is that I play multiple characters. That’s what I’ve always done. Part of what I like to do is to push the boundaries and try new things. … I thought, ‘It’s going to provoke people. It’s going to be headlined’ — and certainly everyone in Australia fell into that trap.”
When asked about the petition, HBO responded with a statement about Lilley’s work and acclaim.
Chris Lilley is an award-winning writer and performer whose work has delighted millions of people all over the world. He was first introduced to HBO viewers six years ago with his acclaimed series “Summer Heights High.” “Jonah from Tonga” is a spin-off of that series (which is currently the best-selling TV show on DVD in Australian history). Chris is known for creating and performing a wide range of characters both male and female, from the privileged young high school girl Ja’mie to rapper S. Mouse!, to Japanese mom Jen Okazaki and the elderly guard at a juvenile detention center, Gran, among others. His second series, “Angry Boys,” ran on the network two and a half years ago. He joins a long list of comic artists who have brought their original voices to the network.