J. Elijah Cho channels Mickey Rooney – and his yellowface portrayal of a Japanese character in a classic 1961 Hollywood film – in “Mr. Yunioshi,” opening this Friday at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. (Photo by Rob Slaven)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment

SIERRA MADRE — The notion that comedy can be an effective salve is one J. Elijah Cho has embraced as he tackles an uncomfortably prickly topic for his one-man show.

“I know where the laughs came from historically, but now there’s a new way of thinking, and my great hope is to, somewhere in there, find a positive experience,” he said.

Cho will channel and examine the late actor Mickey Rooney when “Mr. Yunioshi” opens this Friday at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.

The play picks apart the circumstances surrounding Rooney’s portrayal of the Japanese neighbor in the 1961 Oscar-winning film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” While the movie has become one of Hollywood’s most beloved features with one of its most beloved stars – Audrey Hepburn – it is also cited as perhaps the most egregious example of “yellowface” casting.

Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is widely regarded as an egregious example of yellowface in Hollywood.

Rooney dons thick glasses and cartoonish fake teeth to deliver an Asian character that serves primarily as the butt of racist jokes.

Among the concepts Cho ponders in his role-reversing play is how someone of Asian heritage can turn what might feel like a personal attack into a higher level of understanding. He cites how by 1961, Rooney’s career may have been on the downswing,

with fewer leading man roles coming his way.

“As Asians, we feel like these are attacks on us as a people, when it could just be an aging Hollywood star struggling to stay relevant and making messes in his wake,” Cho told The Rafu on Tuesday. “I hope a big takeaway is empathy, the idea that I knew it was wrong, but now I can feel it and understand it in a different way. I hate what he did, but I kind of feel bad for the guy – I think that makes it easier not to carry that anger around with you.”

In “Mr. Yunioshi,” Cho initially depicts Rooney as something of a narcissist, at first believing he is being cast as the romantic lead opposite Ms. Hepburn. When it becomes apparent that he is being tapped to play the role of the Japanese neighbor, Rooney has to deal with whether it is okay for him to play the Asian character.

Ultimately, he took the role, but the play – written, directed and performed by Cho – strives to show how he arrived there.

“I certainly feel the damage he’s done, but as an actor myself, I wondered how we come to the roles and opportunities we’re given,” Cho said. “Rooney could have had any role in his heyday, but as he got older, maybe his roles were limited.”

With over 100 films to his credit, Rooney’s career is the longest in Hollywood history, spanning from 1926 to 2014. He was a go-to leading man for decades, and received two Oscars for his work.

Cho also noted how Mr. Yunioshi, as written by the legendary Truman Capote, was a more impactful, respectable character, a far cry from the buffoonery that wound up in the film.

“It was such a missed opportunity, not just for a performer, but for this Asian character,” Cho lamented.

Each performance of “Mr. Yunioshi” will be followed by a question-and-answer session.

Having taken the production to audiences across the country, Cho said he feels fortunate that audiences have been warmly receptive, regardless of their demographic.

“Mr. Yunioshi” opens Friday and runs through Feb. 5 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. Free parking in lots behind the theater and across the street, as well as street parking. For information and tickets, call (626) 355-4318, or visit https://sierramadreplayhouse.org/.

COVID-19 safety protocols are being observed and audience members will be required to wear masks inside the Playhouse auditorium.

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