In Conversation with J. Elijah Cho

Elijah Cho and the radical empathy of creating his solo show “Mr. Yunioshi”

PHOTO: Sierra Madre Playhouse | South Pasadenan News | Actor J. Elijah Cho

J. Elijah Cho was living and working as an actor in Florida when the artistic director from a prominent theater was quoted making a very dated, derogatory joke about a local Asian massage parlor. The community clapped back letting him know their displeasure to which the director responded, “hey, it’s comedy. It’s satire.” Someone then posted an image of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with the word “satire?” To which Cho posted “I could always write a show where I play Mickey Rooney doing that character.” And the theatre community jumped on it with one of the comments being, “I would really be interested in seeing that, are you really going to do it or is this a joke?” And “Mr. Yunioshi”, Cho’s solo show was born.

The show is currently running at Sierra Madre Playhouse and is a clever, thought provoking and very funny exploration of Mickey Rooney imagining himself being considered for one of the romantic leads in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” only to find out he’ll be playing the comic relief Japanese neighbor. Cho is incredibly charming and thoroughly engages the audience, allowing for a revisitation of this culturally insensitive moment in cinematic history in a new way. I sat down with Cho to talk about his journey to Mr. Yunioshi.

PHOTO: Rob Slaven | South Pasadenan News | J. Elijah Cho stars in “Mr. Yunioshi” at Sierra Madre Playhouse.

Born in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Cho, who is Korean-American, was the child of two U.S. Air Force parents. The family was subsequently stationed in North Dakota, Germany and twice in Korea. Most of his formative years were spent in Korea, yet he says his Korean is not great because he attended American schools and speaks it with an American accent. Whenever he speaks to a native Korean, he explains that they always flip into English to “help him out” so he laments with a laugh, “I’m never going to learn!”

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“It was an interesting thing to be raised as a Korean-American on a military base in Korea,” Cho says, “there would be protests outside of the base about not wanting Americans on Korean soil – I’m Korean but I’m American and they’re protesting the American base in Korea that I go to school on. I feel like all of this kind of informed the role I’m playing now which is an Asian guy playing a white guy trying to play an Asian guy.”

The acting bug came early for Cho and all started when he saw “The Goonies” and “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom” and he said, “I want to be that when I grow up. I want to be able to do that”. He says the whole reason he wanted to be an actor was because he saw someone who looked like him. That someone of course was actor Ke Huy Quan, who was recently nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once”.

PHOTO: Sierra Madre Playhouse | South Pasadenan News | Actor J. Elijah Cho

“He messaged me,” says Cho with genuine astonishment. “He saw the LA Times video interview I did and he said, ‘thank you for your kind words…I’m glad I inspired you and break legs with your show.’ It was a bucket list item I wasn’t even aware I could wish for. It happened and I thought, I didn’t know that was possible – what a highlight, such validation from being a kid watching “Temple of Doom” on Betamax and saying “I want to be him” – I still want to be him! With EEAAO, again you’re inspiring me in such important ways. It’s so gratifying to see it coming from someone who looks like you. I watched this video about how EEAAO has such a beautiful message about masculinity – like not toxic masculinity – how his character is supportive, but has agency and even the whole idea of “can we stop fighting? We have to be kind especially when we don’t know what’s going on.” I had just finished the Yunioshi run in New York when I saw the movie and I was in the theatre and just felt like that’s what I think I’m trying to do – and I don’t even know if this is the right way to be doing this – but seeing that example of radical empathy, even when you’re being attacked, to try to respond with kindness? I was like aw he’s still doing it, he’s still inspiring me!”

His parents always supported his interests, enrolling him in dance classes and martial arts as a kid. He says his mom tells him that he used to say “I could be an astronaut or a firefighter or a policeman or I could be an actor and I get to be all of them!” Cho says he doesn’t remember saying it but he loves that mentality. There was no dedicated theatre department at his school on the base but they did do plays which he eagerly participated in. After high school he went on to study theatre at University of South Florida in Tampa. That’s when the world of theatre and all its working parts opened up to him. He found the program to be really rewarding and he relished all he was able to experience there from learning set design to costuming to dance and improv. “I like to say ‘art feeds art’ so all of this is going to help,” he says thoughtfully. “You read things, go to see things, support other things and it’s so inspiring – you just get more tools for your toolbox. And so that was the experience of USF and doing theatre in Florida. I just wanted to absorb.”

After working on the TV show “Halt and Catch Fire” that shot in Atlanta, Cho found himself back in Florida unable to accept theatre work due to having to stay available for reshoots. And then his girlfriend broke up with him. All roads seemed to point him to Los Angeles. He explains, “it was actually very sweet because after I moved out here she told me, ‘you know I didn’t want to break up with you but I knew you wouldn’t leave otherwise,’ – and I’m so grateful to have so many people in my life like that. He’s been in LA for the past several years and has recently started doing sketch comedy at The Pack Theater, which is where he met Joe Wagner who directed the Hollywood Fringe version of “Mr. Yunioshi”.

PHOTO: Rob Slaven | South Pasadenan News | J. Elijah Cho on stage as “Mr. Yunioshi”

The show has evolved from when he first presented it at the New York Fringe Festival in 2016. “That first version was just getting it out on the page because it was such a silly idea and I wasn’t as confident in my voice and didn’t feel I could say anything important. I felt I could only do ‘this is silly’.” But in preparing for the Hollywood Fringe, Wagner told him he could actually commit to and explore the pathos of Mickey Rooney. “You know, you see that performance and you think there’s not a lot of pathos there. It’s hurtful, it’s harmful – but then if you can think of the person that hurts you as a human being with faults – I bring up Hanlon’s razor that says ‘never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity or ignorance’ – and so I tried to create a universe where that’s what happened – where it was just like a dude fumbling into the most offensive caricature of cinematic history. And so doing it that way, I found, revealed a bunch of new things. Even for myself, like okay I’m less hurt now somehow. And again, this is my opinion. As Asian-Americans we can get the ‘so what are the Asians thinking about this week? Or how do they feel about this issue?’ I can tell you how I feel about this issue and how some people I know feel about this issue but I can’t make a blanket statement about how Asians feel. So it became about giving myself permission to have an opinion about it.”

Cho says he found a way to process everything finally and lean into his own voice. “I think I have something to contribute that’s maybe a little different from what you’re expecting but hopefully surprising and healing in some ways. Which is such a weird thing to do with Mr. Yunioshi specifically – I mean, is there a way I can use this to make Asian people feel better about themselves and their place in this society and entertainment representation. I tried my best but it’s kind of like it took more courage than I had when I first wrote it to do it that way. Like I said before, I’m not an expert but I am an Asian-American actor and I have opinions.”

For the past year Cho has been touring the show around the states and he tells me he’s trying to stay in the moment and appreciate right where he is, to “interrupt anxiety with gratitude.” He loves, for example, the talkbacks that they are doing after each performance. “It’s really important for me to hear how people are reacting. An Asian woman asked me last night, ‘how do you feel about doing whiteface?’ And the interesting thing about theatre is that everything kind of defaults to whiteness, right? If you don’t see the race of the character in the list of descriptions, it’s assumed the character’s white. Like in Shakespeare – those characters aren’t specifically white or can’t only be played by white people but I think having that opportunity to not just play David Henry Hwang plays, which are important and so validating to do – oh this is written by someone like me, for me to do. But then also to have these more universal experiences.”

When asked what he hopes audiences take away from his show Cho reflects, “more than anything I hope people enjoy the show – but more than that I think is perspective. I’ve been saying empathy but I think everyone has a bit of a capacity for empathy and so I think sometimes it’s about getting enough information to have empathy. Who doesn’t want to be loved by people? And who doesn’t put their foot in their mouth? Or in Mickey Rooney’s case keep it firmly in mouth”, he adds with a wry chuckle. “I’m always surprised by the way people expect me to be angrier. I think because of the subject matter, people think I’ll be really mad about it. It’s not that I’m not mad, but I’ve found ways to channel that anger into hopefully something productive.”

PHOTO: Rob Slaven | South Pasadenan News | J. Elijah Cho sings his song “Sexy Asian Men” as a part of his solo show “Mr. Yunioshi”.

It becomes about being able to see a human beyond their actions, and in Rooney’s case it’s a very big action. “But if there’s a way to make it less malicious, make it less that people are out to get people like me or to make fun of people like me – everyone’s struggling, everyone wants to be relevant and funny and when that supercedes other people’s feelings that’s where you get art that’s harmful. And something like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” must have been so empowering for women at that time to see Holly Golightly choosing who she wants to be with and living in New York on her own. So that must have been so important and validating but then to have this blind spot, ‘oh and we also have this performance in it’. But then you throw out Holly Golightly? Moon River? It’s a difficult ask for Asian people to, not even turn the other cheek, but have to contextualize it because if they’re going to show it you want someone who’s Asian to say ‘this is what you’re about to see. This is not what Asian people look like or act like’.”

When Mickey Rooney passed there were many an article written about the role that no one wants to talk about. Even in the eulogies they sort of glossed over it. Late in his life there’s a quote from Rooney where he said, “if you didn’t like it, I forgive you, God bless the Chinese, the Japanese, God bless America.” Cho sighs, “for me that’s the tragedy of it, how close can things go to being right before they inevitably go wrong. In trying to give my version of Mickey Rooney as many outs as possible, where he’s just this close to connecting the dots – but my version is so centered on himself that it’s like ‘I want them to love me and be my fans but really the most important thing here is that Mickey Rooney is in the spotlight’. As an actor I try to find points of agreement with people I disagree with just to give me a starting point of where can we connect. With Rooney it was trying to stay relevant, trying to be recognized and noticed and I think when people are desperate for that attention that’s when people start doing things that are a little less considerate to those outside your immediate circle. Which I think is understandable and makes him less scary, in my mind – this Hollywood star, biggest star in the world hates Asian people, which I think is an easy conclusion to draw – whereas if you view him as the biggest star in the world who was desperate enough for roles that he was just taking roles from people, like “I need to be in front of people”. If I can think of him that way, I feel a little sad – he’s a human with flaws, which I think is a good thing to feel about people – trying not to dehumanize anyone. Radical empathy. I’m not sure it’s the answer but I’ve found that it’s worked for me thus far.”

“Mr. Yunioshi” continues its run at Sierra Madre Playhouse through February 5, 2023 with shows on Friday and Saturday at 8pm and a Sunday matinee at 2pm. Tickets are $45. Seniors $40. Youth 21 and under $25. There are teen tickets available for ages 13-19 through their TeenTix Pass program for $5. For all tickets and information visit (626) 355-4318. Sierra Madre Playhouse is located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Boulevard in Sierra Madre, CA 91024.

And on February 10th you can catch Cho at the next sketch comedy show at The Pack Theater at 6470 Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A. called “Surprise B*tch”.