Mr. Yunioshi is a show that grows on you throughout its runtime. When it’s over, the longer you think about it, the more evident the quickness of the jokes becomes, the more sharp it feels in its critique. And when the wider message concerns Asian representation, Hollywood, and making something funny and meaningful out of something horrible, the way the show lodges itself in your mind feels both welcome and significant.
Mr. Yunioshi is one of two plays currently featured at 1st Stage in Tysons, a part of the Logan Festival of Solo Performance. It stars J. Elijah Cho, who also wrote the script, and is about the titular Mr. Yunioshi — the character Mickey Rooney infamously portrayed in yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Over the course of an extremely well-paced hour, Cho walks the audience through some of the history behind that role, questioning racism, representation, and the actor’s process in doing so. It’s extremely compelling to watch these pieces come together, especially as it sinks in more and more that Cho is examining the process of creating a character by creating one himself.
And that character could only be, as Cho eventually tells us, Laurence Olivier’s favorite actor, Mickey Rooney. It’s a treat to see the way Cho imagines the mind and ego of the actor alongside the more historical elements of Hollywood. Even from the beginning, he takes a playful approach to this. In the very first moments of the first scene, a few seconds go by when Cho doesn’t talk. It seems that he is warming up, gearing up for something, and in that brief lull, it’s easy to wonder what exactly is going on, and which direction things are going to go. Then he starts talking and the angle becomes clear, but just in case it wasn’t, Cho states what feels like a thousand times, with arrogance and glee, “I’m Mickey Rooney!” His caricature of Rooney just builds and builds from there, always with a sly edge that feels like Cho, the writer and performer, is winking at us from behind the mask.
But Cho also imagines a separate cast of characters who were tangentially involved in this film including Judy Garland, Toshiro Mifune, and even Truman Capote. Without ever missing a beat, Cho switches from Garland to Rooney to Mifune to a Chinese food delivery person. Based on the ease with which he pings back and forth, it’s clear that Cho has been working on this a long time, and if his acting chops weren’t enough, the few technical elements the show employs do come in handy, whether that is Cho donning a gloriously campy wig and new costume to play Capote or the lighting shifts that help cue scene changes. The gel used for Mifune’s character is particularly beautiful, a dark blue that makes him look irresistibly cool, adding to the allure and class of the man in question.
Throughout all of this, Cho does a masterful job of blending tongue-in-cheek humor with history and perspective. He makes Rooney’s narcissism so extreme that it’s comical, his self-absorption highlighting just how out-of-touch the actor is with reality. This over-exaggeration makes it easy to see how much went wrong with the casting and portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, and at the same time, it makes Rooney seem a bit pitiful, trying to command a role he was never supposed to play. Watching Cho walk through the process while also performing as other folks who come in and out of Rooney’s life lends an element of melancholy to the cruel final result, to the Mr. Yunioshi forever preserved in the Library of Congress. That’s when the performance comes full circle. Toward the end of the play, Cho takes the stage as himself, actor, writer, and director, delivering a monologue about what this show has meant to him, how it relates to broader issues of Asian representation.
That’s the genius of the lasting effect of Mr. Yunioshi. Not only is it about this moment in history and the need for Asian representation, but it’s also continuously and subtly drawing a comparison between Rooney’s and Cho’s artistic legacies. Rooney’s is Mr. Yunioshi, and all the harm that came with the egregious caricature, while Cho’s is one of humanizing Rooney while championing better representation. But it’s also more than that, encompassing everything the play shows us about the artistic process behind it all: how Cho is creating his own material about what matters to him and highlighting his agency in doing so. I highly recommend that you see him at work.
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission.
Mr. Yunioshi runs through July 23, 2023, at 1st Stage, located at 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. Tickets are $20 for general admission and are available for purchase by calling the box office at 703-854-1856, going online, or in person before each performance.
COVID Safety: 1st Stage is now a mask-optional space. See 1st Stage’s complete COVID Safety Information here.
Not My First Pandemic
Written and performed by César Cadabes
Directed by Kat Evasco
Written, directed, and performed by J. Elijah Cho
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