A fresh face on a miscast character

By John Lyle Belden

On a recent evening, we had the opportunity to see, live and in person on Indianapolis’ District Theatre stage, film icon and entertainment legend, the one and only, Mickey Rooney! He was charming, suave and still prone to talking and acting like the old-Hollywood character he was. And for someone who has been dead since 2014, he looked so…

Asian.

J. Elijah Cho presents “Mr. Yunioshi,” a one-man Fringe-style show he created in which he gets into the role of the five-foot-two bigshot, entering the mind of the man who played this show’s title character in the 1961 motion picture, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Yunioshi, an ethnic-Japanese photographer, was altered for comic effect from a character in the original Truman Capote book. In a move that even got mixed reviews at the time, director Blake Edwards had the very white Rooney portray the role in heavy makeup, large glasses and buck teeth, with a heavy stereotypical accent. In recent decades this flaw in an otherwise lauded film is held up as an egregious example of Hollywood “Yellowface.”

Cho’s Rooney has no racist intent at all, exhibiting a charming cluelessness that is made easier to swallow by seeing an Asian face giving the excuses. Also, we witness an extraordinary talent that gives us, not a tit-for-tat caricature of the offending actor, but a respectful tribute to the man. Cho also slips into moments of Capote and Edwards, as well as Mickey’s all-time best friend, Judy Garland. Cho (and Rooney) even try on classic Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune in a vain attempt to lend Mr. Y. some authenticity.

This show is both a charming window into 1960s Hollywood and an exploration of how it could get something so embarrassingly wrong. In the end, Cho steps out in front of his character to say that the next non-martial-arts Asian leading man could be standing right in front of us – or at least the next Mickey Rooney.

As no one is making an Andy Hardy reboot anytime soon, Cho, with producers Ari and David Stidham, will continue making appearances in “Mr. Yunioshi.” Having recently performed in Los Angeles and New York, he could pop up anywhere. Get details at mryunioshi.com.

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