Urbanite play tackles Asian stereotypes and Mickey Rooney

In an age when actors have to think twice about whether it’s appropriate to take on a role based on their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and physical attributes, it can be amazing that the performance of mickey rooney as a Japanese entertainer in the 1961 romantic drama “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” did not raise more alarms from critics and viewers upon its release.

With chunky glasses, horse teeth and slant eyes, Rooney played Holly Golightly’s featured owner in a cartoonish “yellowface” style that raised only a few eyebrows at the time.

The New York Times called the performance “overall exotic” as The Hollywood Reporter said Rooney is “going all out for the role of a Japanese photographer, but the role is a caricature and will be offensive to many.”

It has only grown over the years.

Actor Mickey Rooney's role as entertainer Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 film

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Actor J. Elijah Cho says he had a long and complicated relationship with the enduring Blake Edwards film which starred Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. This prompted him to explore casting and what Rooney’s portrayal says about Asian American society’s view in his solo play “Mr. Yunioshi. It will premiere for a limited special engagement this week at the Urbanite Theater, followed by another week at the FreeFall Theater in St. Petersburg.

“When I think about this movie, it’s so shocking, so far removed from what a physical person looks like,” Cho said in a recent interview with Zoom. “He is playing a caricature. But at the same time, when I think of works of art like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” I wonder if we’re talking about that or are we just talking about the movie itself. I think if we ignore that performance, it exacerbates the problem.

On his show, Cho portrays Rooney preparing to play Mr. Yunioshi, who is a character somewhat alien to the overall story. During the film’s era, it was not uncommon for white actors to be cast as people of different races or ethnicities, with the help of make-up and costumes.

“It’s like trying to take something harmful and explore it in a certain way,” Cho said. “I try to use comedy because, as tricky as it is, comedy opens the way for us, allows us to dialogue. It’s a good way to respond to things with laughter.

Actor J. Elijah Cho in his solo play “Mr.  Yunioshi.

He first performed the piece at the New York Fringe Festival about six years ago.

“I applied to the festival with just the idea that as an Asian American I would like to do this show about Mickey Rooney. They said yes,” he said, describing the version initial as “very whimsical and ironic and how wacky it is”.

He shelved it until 2019, when he brought it to the Hollywood Fringe Festival, where it was named Best Solo Performance. In this production, “I really dug into what it means to use comedy to maybe get an audience to empathize.”

The website fringereview.co.uk, which focuses on festival productions, said the play was the “must see solo show” at the Hollywood Fringe Festival that year. “It’s smart, fresh, intelligent, funny from start to finish and exactly the kind of show you hope to see during Fringe.”

The pandemic put another hiatus on production, but he resumed work on it and brought the show to multiple theaters, including a May performance at New York’s SoHo Playhouse.

His portrayal and tone have changed over time. Cho said he was trying to give Rooney “the benefit of the doubt” in his performance due to his long career and his efforts to remain relevant as a performer at the time. “If he approached it as an actor, not a caricature, tried to create a character, would that feel good. I have my feelings about that.

Rooney’s image in the film is something that is the result of World War II cartoons about the Japanese, he said.

“Glasses and horse teeth come up in those old cartoons, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck,” Cho said. “Mickey Rooney isn’t making up this cartoon. He’s performing in front of a chauvinistic segment of an audience. It’s something artists do, I don’t mean out of desperation, to lure a segment of the population into a another part of the entertainment of the population.

Mr. Yunioshi is not the only figure to have raised concerns. Cho, who lived in Tampa while attending the University of South Florida, recalls being confused the first time he saw the 1985 film “Remo Williams” in which white actor Joel Gray played a korean grand master of martial arts.

“As a kid, I thought he looked a little weird, but there’s a Korean in this movie, so the portrayal is there in a weird and complicated way for me as a kid.” He eventually wondered why they “didn’t find anything ‘right’ for the role they had to go with this person. It’s a bit hurtful, if not downright insulting to hear that it could have gone to a person Asian, but there weren’t enough of them.

‘M. Yunioshi’

Written and directed by and starring J. Elijah Cho. September 7-11, Urbanite Theater, 1487 Second St., Sarasota. Tickets cost between $7 and $41. 941-321-1397; urbanitetheatre.com

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