Using humor to rebuke racist caricatures and racial exclusion in ‘Mr. Yunioshi’ at Off-Broadway’s SoHo Playhouse

In the 1961 Paramount Pictures film adaptation of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hollywood icon and big-name draw Mickey Rooney was cast in the small and significantly reimagined role of the Japanese American photographer and upstairs neighbor Mr. Yunioshi. His infamously offensive racist caricature and the studio’s objectionably clueless cross-ethnic casting inspired creator/performer J. Elijah Cho’s smart, funny, and carefully considered one-man show Mr. Yunioshi – winner of the Best Solo Performance at the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival – now playing a limited engagement at SoHo Playhouse.

J. Elijah Cho. Photo courtesy of the production.

Performed on a bare stage with just a chair, small table, and a few papers and photos for props, Cho masterfully combines direct address, audience interaction, and parodic portrayals in his hilariously fictionalized but well-researched account of the thought process and creative process that went into the film’s unenlightened choice and over-the-top characterization. He takes the stage upbeat and smiling, and, in a brilliant reversal of casting, introduces himself, in signature suspenders, as the excessively boastful Mickey Rooney, who tells us what a great actor he is, and to prove it, proceeds to imitate (and to confuse) the ethnic accents and stereotypes of members of the audience (except for the one from which Rooney himself is descended).

With minimal changes in costume accessories, the outstanding Cho also assumes the identities of the people connected to Rooney’s journey, from his childhood co-star and friend Judy Garland (who advises him in a letter to give George Peppard – cast in the lead male role that Rooney wanted – a chance), to the unseen but heard Chinese food delivery man (whom he asks to read lines from the script so he could imitate his accent – completely unaware that being Chinese isn’t the same as Japanese), the disgruntled author Capote (whose name he egregiously mispronounces, along with those of Peppard and Yunioshi), and the wise and dignified actor Toshiro Mifune (whose “sexy” accent and demeanor he appropriates for his character, until feedback from the studio advises him to be funny).

J. Elijah Cho. Photo courtesy of the production.

And that’s when the perfectly paced show’s laugh-out-loud wit also becomes shake-your-head cringeworthy, as Cho dons the kimono, glasses that make him squint, and inordinate buck teeth, and adopts the outrageously histrionic facial expressions and speech pattern that have been captured for posterity in the movie. It’s a moment that shifts the mood from thoroughly amusing to emotionally unsettling and drives home the issues of insensitive miscasting, “ugly” racial prejudice, and under-representation of Asian actors – which Cho, as himself, slyly reminds us in his humorously self-promoting concluding monologue and song.

It also leaves us wondering how such an outdated film, which has been subsequently criticized for its inappropriate “yellow-face” characterization, maintains its status as a beloved American classic, and how Rooney, in a quote Cho cites from decades later, never acknowledged or recognized the error of his problematic portrayal or privileged perspective. Sadly, it is representative of its time and of the need for change that is still long overdue, as witnessed in the shocking present-day rise in anti-Asian hate crime in our country.

Mr. Yunioshi is a highly entertaining and meaningful show that embraces the need to laugh, with an extremely important message that should not be missed. For a sneak peek at Cho’s winning performance, you can watch the video montage here:

Running Time: Approximately 55 minutes, without intermission.

Mr. Yunioshi plays through Sunday, May 29, 2022, at SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $35), call (212) 691-1555, or go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.

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Deb Miller (PhD, Art History) is the Senior Correspondent and Editor for New York City, where she grew up seeing every show on Broadway. She is an active member of the Outer Critics Circle and served for more than a decade as a Voter, Nominator, and Judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre. Outside of her home base in NYC, she has written and lectured extensively on the arts and theater throughout the world (including her many years in Amsterdam, London, and Venice, and her extensive work and personal connections with Andy Warhol and his circle) and previously served as a lead writer for Stage Magazine, Phindie, and Central Voice.

2 COMMENTS

  1. If you liked Mickey Rooney as a Japanese-American in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, check out Marlon Brando as an Okinawan in Teahouse of the August Moon, John Wayne as Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror, Rex Harrison as the King In Anna and the King of Siam, or to change continents for a minute, Lawrence Olivier in blackface as the Mahdi in Khartoum. Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s made quite the habit of casting bankable Anglos in roles that are now embarrassing to watch.

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