The movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a beloved classic, right? Everyone remembers Audrey Hepburn’s party girl Holly Golightly and the Henry Mancini song “Moon River.” But for many, there’s a big problem with this adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel—and that is the appearance of veteran actor Mickey Rooney in yellowface as the buck-toothed, broadly comic Mr. Yunioshi, Holly’s Japanese landlord.
That’s the subject actor-writer J. Elijah Cho (he goes by Jonathan offstage, but took the stage name to avoid any confusion with actor John Cho) tackles with his one-man show, Mr. Yunioshi, onstage at Urbanite Theatre for a limited engagement, Sept. 7-11. Cho, who first worked in the Tampa-St. Pete area after graduating from college, says he was fortunate in that there, “I was cast in roles that were not necessarily Asian, like in Crimes of the Heart, which is a Southern Gothic piece. That opened my mind to the opportunities out there.”
But then, about a decade ago, an artistic director in the area posted something on social media, a “poor taste” joke about an Asian-American massage parlor that sparked lots of comments from those who read it, including a post of a picture of Rooney as Yunioshi, with the word “satire” on it as a sort of defense. “I decided to write a show about Mickey Rooney preparing for the role,” Cho says.
Mr. Yunioshi first bowed in 2016; in 2019 it won Cho an award for best solo show at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Then, with stage shows sidelined by Covid, Cho teamed up with a fellow writer for a Zoom comedy show, and dug out his script for the play.
The show has evolved over time, Cho says, “as I grew as an artist, and an Asian-American artist as well.” And while his early performances in the show were more tongue-in-cheek, his current portrayal of Rooney is more empathetic than you might first imagine.
“He was an actor with a long career and a big ego, trying to stay relevant, and maybe not quite sure this role was for him,” says Cho. “You get to see Mickey Rooney on a journey, realizing he’s not going to be the leading man [in the movie]. There’s something about him; a part of me wishes I had that confidence he does, that you see in his autobiography. As a performer, you want to have that. But that can also be due to ignorance or a lack of self-awareness.”
Overall, Cho says, while the casting of an actor like Rooney in such a role might initially cause anger or depression among Asian-Americans, he doesn’t want anger and loud voices to dominate. “My hope is to have this as a way into conversation, without getting into screaming matches,” he says. “We’re all trying to figure this out. I might have a couple of answers, maybe not the definitive ones. But I enjoy talking with people; I want to know where they’re coming from, and for them to know where I’m coming from. I’m not instantly trying to win an argument.”
For tickets and info about Mr. Yunioshi, head to urbanitetheatre.com.