An [Asian] Actor Prepares: Turning the Table on Tiffany’s

J. Elijah Cho in "Mr. Yunioshi" at Sierra Madre Playhouse. Photo credit: Rob Slaven.

Hard on the heels of the Debbie Allen-directed Fetch Clay, Make Man (see:, which depicted Stepin Fetchit, the star who personified the silver screen’s shuffling, lazy, buffoonish caricature of Blacks during the 1930s/40s, another play about motion picture racial tropes is being revived. As AmeriKKKa undergoes a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes, writer/actor/ director J. Elijah Cho’s terrific Mr. Yunioshi is an acerbic, sly skewering of stage and celluloid stereotypes of so-called “Orientals.”

In his one man show, Cho incarnates 1920-born Mickey Rooney, who started out as a child performer, became a sensation at MGM where he starred in musicals, the 16-picture Andy Hardy “all-American boy” series, et al, and was the world’s top box-office draw from 1939-1941. The oft-married Rooney’s career spanned nine decades, from vaudeville to the silent screen to technicolor, television and beyond.

Although movie posters from Rooney’s illustrious oeuvre decorate the spare stage, Cho’s solo show is not a bio-play per se, despite the fact that we do glean nuggets of info (along with “misinfo”) about the thespian’s long life over the course of this 60-minute production. Instead, Cho’s work zooms in on only one of the 300-plus movies Rooney appeared in, 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (see the trailer at:, Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella, from a script adapted by Capote and George Axelrod. (The latter’s screenwriting credits include 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate – too bad he’s not around anymore, he could have written an updated version about Trump called The Manhattanian Candidate. But I digress – meanwhile, back at the review:)

Tiffany’s starred Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and George Peppard as Paul Varjak, but who remembers that Patricia Neal, Martin Balsam and Buddy Ebsen were also in it? On the other hand, Mickey Rooney is (regrettably!) unforgettable in Tiffany’s as the eponymous character of Cho’s play. Why? Because Rooney’s problematic portrayal of I. Y. Yunioshi is an egregiously, despicable cartoonish trope of Japanese in particular, and of Asians in general. Rooney goes heavily as Holly Golightly’s much put upon upstairs neighbor, the man from the Land of the Rising Sun who has somehow alighted in Manhattan. Mickey plays the long-suffering photographer wearing stereotypical buckteeth, thick glasses and a kimono, speaking in an accent so thick that Toshiro Mifune might have trouble slicing it with a samurai sword. (Before accusing this paleface scribbler of typecasting, Dear Reader, there’s a reason why I reference Akira Kurosawa’s greatest swordsman, as you’ll see below.)

(And if you think I’m exaggerating, check out what appears to be a compilation of clips featuring Rooney in Tiffany’s, although I warn you this may be highly insulting and triggering to some Link here

Tiffany’s Yunioshi is likely the most comic figure (actually, the butt of jokes) in this motion picture romantic comedy, and one of the most racially offensive caricatures of Asians in Hollywood history, which was even noted way back when the film was released in ’61 by The New York Times, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Rooney’s Yunioshi has pride of place in the stellar 2019 Yellowface: Asian Whitewashing and Racism in Hollywood by Clara and Julia Kuperberg, which features great, insightful commentary by scholar and author Nancy Wang Yuen and film historian Joseph McBride. See the documentary’s trailer at:

Rather than give us a mere onstage reenactment of Rooney as Yunioshi, what Cho rather ingeniously does instead is depict how he imagines Mickey created the Japanese character, and there’s a method to his madcap madness. In the spirt of Constantin Stanislavski’s, An Actor Prepares, Cho portrays Rooney constructing and getting into the role. At first, the diminutive 40-ish Rooney, (mis)perceiving himself to be a matinee idol, plays Yunioshi as a romantic leading man type. Under studio pressure, when the execs reject this ego-testicle projection of the oft-married Mickey – who was briefly hitched to screen sex siren Ava Gardner 20 years before Tiffany’s was lensed – he reverts to playing Yunioshi as a figure of fun, a kooky kabuki.

Along the way, Cho – a gifted thesp who had a recurring role on the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire – makes a number of detours, playing versions of Judy Garland, Truman Capote (whose name Mickey mangles – and BTW, listen to how it is also mispronounced in the movie’s trailer), and Toshiro Mifune. A Korean-American self-described “military brat” who was born in Florida but spent much of his childhood at a US Air Force base in Korea (south, not north, for all you wisenheimer Oppenheimers out there in cyber-land), Cho creatively channels his outrage – if not righteous rage – about racial misrepresentation into this one-man show full of wry wit and wisdom. By leavening anger with humor – plus with lots of audience interaction – Cho scores his ethnic points without being overly abrasive and possibly turning off many theatergoers (especially of the Caucasoid variant) who might otherwise tune him and his enlightened message of cultural sensitivity and authenticity out. Like Mickey before him, Cho knows that old show biz adage: “Make ’em laugh!” – even as you make ’em cry. In doing so, Cho has rendered an invaluable contribution to the dramatization and study of stereotypes.

The actor is also aware of the inherent irony that he’s “playing… an Asian guy playing a white guy trying to play an Asian guy (see:” This is compounded by the fact that while racists may simplistically lump all people of Asian ancestry together, Cho is of Korean heritage, while Yunioshi is of Japanese background, and after years of Imperial Japan’s colonialism plus WWII, there has been bad blood between Seoul (and Pyongyang) and Tokyo.

  During a post-performance talkback on opening night of Mr. Yunioshi’s return engagement at the Sierra Madre Playhouse (where it was first presented last January), I asked Cho how fact-based his solo show is? The writer/actor replied that in Rooney’s autobiography (1991’s cutely titled Life is Too Short), the Yunioshi role is only mentioned “in two sentences in passing.” Cho said he suspects this was likely because Rooney “did not want to take credit” for an ethnically outre characterization that generated so much criticism. However, in reading Life is Too Short, Cho picked up on Micky’s egomania, and this became the basis of his understanding and depiction of an individual who spent almost his entire lifetime in the public eye.

The playwright added that as far as he knew, Mickey never actually crossed paths with Toshiro Mifune. The onstage interaction between Rooney and the swashbuckling star of Kurosawa epics such as 1954’s The Seven Samurai is strictly a product of Cho’s vivid imagination. 

I went on to ask the dramatist how the movie’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi compares with Capote’s in his original novella (which your humble scribe has never read), and Cho responded that Truman – himself a lifelong outsider – was “much more respectful” and that Yunioshi plays an important role as a plot device, in that he knows where Holly Golightly has gone to after she’s flown her Manhattan coop. And according to Wikipedia: “culturally assimilated Japanese-American Yunioshi [was] born in California, as the character was written in Capote’s original book.”

Cho added that Capote “described Holly as an American geisha; she’s tied to the geisha world.” In 1957, The New Yorker sent Truman to Kyoto to interview Marlon Brando, who was on location there shooting Sayonara. Capote’s magazine profile of Brando, The Duke in His Domain, opens: “Most Japanese girls giggle” and he writes of a “plump peony-and-pansy-kimonoed figure.” I suspect that Truman learned about geishas while on assignment at Japan.   

In recent years I’ve enjoyed solo shows about cultural luminaries, including Capote in Tru (see my review at; Elizabeth Taylor, who was brought back to life last February at the Sierra Madre Playhouse by Kayla Boye in Call Me Elizabeth (; and Mickey’s first wife, Ava Gardner, reincarnated by Elizabeth McGovern in the two-hander Ava, The Secret Conversations (see: As a “pop culture-ologist” and film historian I enjoyed them all, as I did Mr. Yunioshi. But by delving into the thorny issues of racial representation and misrepresentation, the multi-talented Cho’s has added another dimension to his one-man show that makes it must-see live theater for ticket buyers interested in: Ethnic and Asian subjects; movie history; cultural cliches; and audiences who just love excellent acting. Instead of a Breakfast at Tiffany’s, J. Elijah Cho’s Mr. Yunioshi offers theatergoers a feast at Sierra Madre.

Mr. Yunioshi is being performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through Aug. 13 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024.  For more info: (626)355-4318; and

J. Elijah Cho in "Mr. Yunioshi" at Sierra Madre Playhouse. Photo credit: Rob Slaven.