HCC Ybor Performing Arts Center
In 2014, I was an actor living in Seminole Heights and doing theatre in Tampa, St. Pete and Clearwater. I had been acting in the area since graduating from USF and was starting to receive regular work performing on local stages with companies which included Stageworks, Jobsite and Hat Trick.
An important thing to note, I am a second (third?) generation Korean-American – my Mom and Dad immigrated to America as children with their parents. During my time doing theatre in Tampa, I can count on one hand the number of Asian American artists that I worked with or was aware of.
There was another Asian actor named, I think, Jimmy? I don’t believe I ever met Jimmy, but there were several local actors who were convinced that I was him. So, Jimmy, if I took a role from you due to mistaken identity, my bad… Also, I’m bummed we never met because what if we were actually doppelgangers? We could’ve played twins!
Back to 2014, which was also the year that I would get into a very public dispute with a local artistic director over some offensive anti-Asian comments that they made on social media. In that online conversation, a meme was shared – Mickey Rooney with buck teeth and taped back eyes with a one word caption, “SATIRE.”
That meme planted the seed for what would eventually become Mr. Yunioshi, “a one man show where an Asian actor plays Mickey Rooney developing his character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
I submitted just that blurb to the New York Fringe Festival in 2016, thinking that if they were interested, I would write the piece – and if not, I could save myself the time and effort.
Bold move, I know, and when it did get accepted, I had just a couple of months to actually write the thing. At the time, I was roommates with Jack Holloway (artistic director of Hat Trick / BFF) and he saw firsthand the knots that I tied myself up in trying to navigate the tightrope of creating a piece that could tackle such an important topic as yellowface.
He could see I was struggling and one late, sleepless night, Jack asked me, “… you doing okay?”
I told him I didn’t know how to write the show. Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi is so egregious, I wasn’t sure how I was going to write a comedy about it while still speaking to the harmfulness of his performance, the lack of opportunities for Asian Actors (this was before Crazy Rich Asians), and getting those points across in a way that would be entertaining.
Jack asked me, “Are you trying to write a show that will solve racism?” He didn’t say it sarcastically, but gently, suggesting that it was certainly a lofty goal but maybe a bit overly ambitious.
He then asked, “What do YOU need the show to do?” I told him I just didn’t want people to walk out before the show was over. And saying those words out loud, I realized I actually did know how to do that. I can be entertaining.
That was the first big lesson I learned working on this piece – I am enough. In the words of Tumblr user, tahtahtahtia (sharing the words of her anthropology professor, Professor Proctor), “You all have a little bit of ‘I want to save the world’ in you, that’s why you’re here, in college.
“I want you to know that it’s okay if you only save one person, and it’s okay if that person is you.”
I moved to Hollywood in 2018 and in 2019, that’s where I saw the show Secret Identity Crisis written by and starring Paul Yen. Upon his insistence and with his support, I submitted to the Hollywood Fringe Festival Scholarship program. The show was accepted and I was mentored by Royce Shockley, who is now the managing director of the Pack Theater (my comedy home in L.A.).
My director this time around was Joe Wagner, a sketch comedy director that directed The Midnight Show at UCB Theatre (Upright Citizens Brigade), whose video sketches Jack and I used to watch in Tampa. Joe was instrumental in pushing me to try and actually become Mickey Rooney, as opposed to the tongue in cheek performance I delivered in NY.
In doing this, we uncovered a whole new level of comedy for the show, steeped in pathos and hubris.
Joe told me during rehearsals, “You’re the right person to make these jokes. Don’t shy away from them.” Lesson One, again. And also, Lesson Two – tragedy and comedy work together to heighten each other. It’s a lot like life, where things are often difficult and hilarious at the same time.
Mr. Yunioshi went on to win Best Solo Show that year and my Mom was present to see me win the award.
Finally, in the fall of 2021, all of this work provided me the opportunity to collaborate with my current producers, Ari Stidham, and his father, David. Ari had seen a tape of the Hollywood Fringe performance (captured by Nathaniel Beaver) and asked me what I planned to do next with the show. I said I was going to upload the tape to YouTube and he said, “Don’t… do that.” We partnered up the next day.
Since that initial meeting, Mr. Yunioshi has been performed all across the United States. Ari and David invited my Mom to be my Tour Manager after seeing all the pictures she took when the show was at the SoHo Playhouse in New York, and now it’s a regular family affair.
Lesson Three – create and collaborate with the people you love and that love you back (when you can). Dear Jack, Joe, Ari and David all fall in that category. My Mom, too… Obviously.
Ari and David (along with Associate Producer, Genah Redding) brought the show to the Sierra Madre Playhouse where, for the first time, I performed the show for primarily Asian American audiences. (The show is “back by popular demand” this summer.)
I was so pleasantly surprised to see that my efforts to transform pain into comedy, discomfort into resilience, really resonated with an audience that looked like me. My fear of being viewed as an outsider, a disruptor, or far worse, a “bad Asian,” proved to be unfounded.
If anything, the show taught me another lesson that maybe should have been obvious to me from the start – Asians are not a monolith. Being myself has connected me with people (and especially, my people) in more ways than I thought possible. Lesson One. Again.
I’m incredibly excited to be returning to Tampa Bay, my theatre home, with this show that has taught me so much and that I’m still learning things from. I hope these lessons come across through my writing and performance – but mainly, I hope audiences can enjoy the show and that I can continue being seen and accepted for who I am, first and foremost, by me.
. . .
written and performed by J. Elijah Cho
April 19 at 7:30 pm
April 20 at 2 pm
HCC Ybor Studio Theater
1411 E. 15th St
Tampa FL 33605
You can find ticket information here