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‘Mr. Yunioshi’ explores Hollywood’s Asian stereotypes

Bill DeYoung

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J. E;ijah Cho channels Mickey Rooney in the one-man show "Mr. Yunioshi." Publicity photo.

In the 1961 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of the characters circling around free-spirited Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) is Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese photographer who lives just up the stairs in her apartment building.

Curious, yellow: Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Paramount (screengrab).

The excitable gentleman is played by one-time Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney as an angry, buck-toothed, sing-songy cartoon. Rooney’s performance, in fact, has gone down in history as perhaps the most egregiously offensive Asian stereotype in all cinema: “Miss Gorightry! Miss Gorightry! I must protest!”

Actor J. Elijah Cho, formerly Tampa-based and now living in Los Angeles, used the Rooney ruckus as the fulcrum for his one-man comedy Mr. Yunioshi. It’s at freeFall Theatre Thursday through Sunday.

“The must-see solo show of the Hollywood Fringe this year,” screamed a reviewer in 2019. “It’s smart, fresh, clever, funny from start to finish, and exactly the kind of show you hope to see during Fringe.”

For Cho (his heritage is Korean-American, and the J stands for Jonathan, if you’re wondering), writing Mr. Yunioshi involved extensive research, of course, into “yellowface” movie acting – who could forget John Wayne’s curious turn as Mongol warrior Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror? – but also some soul-searching.

“My initial intention was, of course, to go into yellowface and cultural appropriation, and as an Asian American how that hits and resonates … but the thing I keep coming back to is, how do you measure a person? There are a lot of rightfully angry discussions had around Mickey Rooney’s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Cho realized that if he wrote an hour-long show seething with vitriol, audiences would reject it. The more he read about Rooney, and that particular time in his career, the more he developed a sort of empathy.

He wondered “what a person who wants to remain relevant might be feeling as they’re making decisions about themselves, and not really considering people outside themselves.”

Was it the era? Was it pressure from the studio? Were there no other gigs on the table? Did no one notice how awful the whole thing was?

“I try to debate with kindness, you know?” Cho says. “If there’s a way for me to find even a small thing that I can agree with, that’s a jumping-off point. And with Mickey Rooney, it’s very much like OK, he’s an actor, I’m an actor, I certainly understand wanting to remain relevant, and being offered roles that maybe aren’t right for me. But wanting to work.

“If anything, Mickey Rooney had the added pressure of being an insanely popular child star. How do you reckon with having everything, and then slowly seeing it slip away as you get older?”

Onstage in Mr. Yunioshi, Cho puts himself in Rooney’s shoes. “I tried to imagine a way where, if he’d done it differently, would it make people as angry?”

Obviously, it can be done. White American actress Linda Hunt won an Academy Award for her portrayal of a Chinese man in director Peter Weir’s 1982 drama The Year of Living Dangerously.

Cho first encountered the yellowface phenomenon as a youngster, watching white American Joel Grey play a martial arts expert in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985).

“I think that was the first time I heard Korean in a movie, where he was like ‘I’m a Korean grand master.’ For me, who had only seen Chinese and Japanese characters onscreen, it was ‘Oh! There’s a Korean character that I can identify with.’ I recognized ‘He doesn’t really look Korean, but he says he is.’ As I grew older, I realized ‘That was a white guy playing a Korean guy.’

“What I keep coming back to is ‘Who could we have gotten in that role, and where would they be now?’ Even with the best performance, I think the harm comes from the idea of audiences being able to identify with the character, and not the performer.”

All roads of this sort, inevitably, lead back to Mr. Rooney and Mr. Yunioshi.

“Here you have Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Cho says, “introducing Holly Golightly to a generation of young women who have someone that they can identify with. And they can emulate, and be maybe a little more free.

“And then in that you have this … blind spot, I think, a really big blind spot of this very damaging Asian stereotype caricature. As a person, I realize that this movie may have helped people that aren’t me. That, I think is a good thing.

“But at the same time, it contains this very hurtful performance. And it’s also somewhat jarring when you watch the movie – because it’s so charming, and then Mickey Rooney pops up and it’s almost like a jump scare.”

Tickets for J. Elijah Cho’s Mr. Yunioshi at freeFall are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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