Back in 2017, Amanaki Prescott-Faletau and Leki Jackson-Bourke were rolling through high schools in South Auckland watching students perform their play Inky Pinky Ponky.
The story of young fakaleitī Lisa falling for Mose, her school’s First XV captain, was cool, cheeky, funny and sad. It was also so proudly Tongan and queer — a gift for young Pacific performers who craved authentic, home-grown storytelling.
Now, more than 10 years after the characters of Lisa and Mose were created, we’re seeing them in a film — with Amanaki herself starring as Lisa.
Here, Amanaki talks to Teuila Fuatai about what Lisa and Mose’s story means to her.
Inky Pinky Ponky is based on my own high school experiences. There’s Lisa, the bold, high school fakaleitī, and Mose, the heterosexual male sports captain.
The story started out as a drama assessment in 2011. I was studying at the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts and we were asked to write and perform a solo acting assessment.
Everyone knew me as a dancer, but I wanted to produce something different. Something no one expected.
So I wrote about the first time I fell in love — which was in high school, with a guy who was the First XV captain from another school. He was captain of a lot of other sports teams, too, and popular. That’s Mose’s character. Lisa is based on me. It ended up being a 15-minute piece, and I played both of them.
Just like in Lisa and Mose’s story, my high school relationship started out as a dare.
I identified as a gay male at the time, and because of that, the boys at school dared their rugby captain to develop a relationship with me. He went along with the idea, and by the time I found out, months later, we’d become really good friends. But the whole situation was so stupid, and demeaning, and I felt totally betrayed. After that, I struggled a lot with relationships.
It’s why Lisa, and many of the characters in Inky Pinky Ponky are so close to my heart. Their moments and storylines, good and bad, are inspired by my own experiences, and also those of my trans sisters.
In all its versions — first as a school play, then theatre production and now film — I’ve woven together different parts of our journeys as young, brown trans women. It’s a timeline that’s spanned 15 years, from when I was a teenager to now. And like me, the characters and story have evolved, matured and become a bit more sassy over the years.
That shift and development reflects our increasing visibility as Pacific trans women. Now, more than ever, we’re able to be our authentic selves and advocate for queer rights. And I’m proud that Leki Jackson-Bourke and I have honoured that progress in the different versions of the story.
When I think back to high school, it was pretty tough. My last year was 2006 and at that time our conversations were so limited. We never discussed anything around pronouns and gendered toilets. I didn’t actually know anything about those things.
Now, our Pacific Rainbow kids are a lot more visible. We talk about trans rights and gender identities. A few years ago, I worked for an organisation that worked closely with teenagers. We’d go into high schools and run activities and workshops for diversity students. We unpacked a lot of issues they weren’t comfortable talking about anywhere else. It’s the kind of work that’s enabled more sophisticated and informed conversations around our identities and trans and queer lives.
I also think that’s why Inky Pinky Ponky has had so much success in high schools and with Pacific students. Fundamentally, the crux of the story has stayed the same — it’s about being the odd one out, and being true to yourself and your values at a time when things are quite confusing and shitty. But we’ve updated the script to keep up with ongoing conversations and stay relevant.
One aspect I’ve loved working on and developing is the relationship between Lisa and her mum. It’s an insight into what our parents go through — how they juggle religion and their own family values with raising young trans brown children who are all on such individual journeys.
In the theatre play, Lisa’s mum’s character was inspired by one of my closest friends, who is fa’afāfine. My friend’s mum actually told me the story. She’d given her husband an ultimatum. If he didn’t accept their daughter for who she was, she would leave him. The story has stuck with me ever since I heard it, and so, in the theatre play, Lisa’s mum talks about how she sacrificed her love with her husband for her daughter.
For the film, Leki and I changed it again, and Lisa’s mum has a different story. She isn’t with Lisa’s father because she had an affair. That was a bit of fun Leki had with her character.
In my family, I never had to come out to my parents because they already knew I was different from a young age.
When I was a kid, I would tau’olunga (the traditional Tongan dance for women) all the time at church, just for fun.
I remember being told it was bad, and that I wasn’t allowed to do it. That’s when I first knew that society viewed me differently. Because, while some people would cheer me on, others would try and make me understand that it wasn’t appropriate for me to tau’olunga at church.
I also had lots of internal conversations with myself as a kid, trying to understand why I was so different to my brothers. Those became bigger conversations with my parents, where we talked about our family and the views of the church. My dad’s a deacon, so our faith and congregation has always been a big part of our life.
When I look back now, even when we disagreed, my mum and dad have always loved and supported me. Of course, we’ve had our moments, but I know they’ve always had my back, and that I’ve had it a lot easier than some of my trans sisters.
I remember when I first started shaving my eyebrows, my mum flipped out. I was still in high school and I’d done a terrible job. Then there was the first time I wore a dress at home. I remember my dad said to me it was too short, and I had to pull it down. He hates me wearing off-the-shoulder tops, because none of my sisters do. It was very much: “If you want to be a girl, then you need to be very Tongan, or modest about it.”
For now, Lisa and me, and the Inky Pinky Ponky crew are having our big screen moment. It’s been many years in the making, and a special journey, especially because the story continues to resonate with so many people.
I also think, after all these years, I’m looking forward to moving on and making something totally different. I’m currently writing about my journey as a brown trans person joining the police. I’ve wanted to be a police officer since I was a kid, and I’ve completed my police prep course, so the next step is to go to police college.
I’d also like to write a celebratory story — where we see trans women who are CEOs, and doctors, or we see stories of trans women who are married to heterosexual men.
I’ve been in the performing arts industry for about 13 years now, and a lot of trans stories tend to highlight our trauma and transition journeys. Like Lisa’s high school experience, they’re important stories to tell.
But we’re so much more than that. And our creative stories should reflect that. So my ambition now is to show even more of the different and rich realities of being trans and queer Pacific people in our communities.
Amanaki Prescott-Faletau is a writer, actress, director and dancer of Tongan descent. She co-founded the performing arts collective, Fine Fatale, which highlights and amplifies the voices of Māori and Pasifika trans and queer artists. Amanaki is also a navigator for F’INE Pasifika Aotearoa, which provides services for Pacific Rainbow people. She created Inky Pinky Ponky with her good friend Leki Jackson-Bourke. The film is directed by Damon Fepulea’i and Ramon Te Wake, and is being streamed by Coconet TV. It is also available on Whakaata Māori.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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