By LEE CATALUNA, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Ed Sakamoto’s plays are worlds away from the stiff, mannered theater that many love to hate. Rollicking and ribald, hearty and heartbreaking, his work makes audiences fall into fits of laughter or unstoppable tears. It’s easy to be caught up in the stories he crafted and the characters he created.
Sakamoto, 75, died Oct. 7 in Los Angeles. He had been living with friends in West Covina in recent years but moved into a nursing facility when he needed more care.
Sakamoto has been called Hawaii’s most popular, most prolific and most beloved playwright, but even those superlatives don’t do justice to his impact and his skill. Sakamoto wrote characters that were so real they seemed pilfered from our memories. He put them in situations we could all recognize, and then elevated the experience into art.
He had 19 plays to his credit, with productions in theaters in Hawaii, all through the West Coast and New York. Collections of his work were published by the University of Hawaii Press. In 1997 Sakamoto was presented with the Hawaii Award for Literature, the highest award for a writer in the state. His most recent production was in spring 2014 at the venerable Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York.
“I had dinner with Ed at Sardi’s in New York before his last play opened off-Broadway. He was talkative but visibly weaker,” said high school friend Dr. Clarence Sasaki, a professor at Yale Medical School. “We will all miss the guy who lived with his mom on School Street, who ignited our boyhood imaginations and who bound us all in friendship.”
Sakamoto was born in Honolulu and graduated from ‘Iolani School in 1958. As a ninth-grader he wrote a new ending to “Treasure Island” for an English course assignment. His teacher read it aloud to the class and gave him an A+. From that moment he was hooked on writing.
Sakamoto graduated from the University of Hawaii with a bachelor’s degree in English and set out for Los Angeles to start his career as a writer. This decision shaped many of his plays, and his characters often agonized over and tried to explain their reasons for leaving home.
“The mainland says, ‘Stick around, we have jobs. You don’t have to go home again. Make a life here.’ And guess what? Now I’ve lived longer on the mainland than in Hawaii. That’s scary,” says the character Shima in Sakamoto’s play “Stew Rice.” Though Sakamoto visited Hawaii regularly, he never moved back to the islands.
He spent his career as a journalist, writing for various newspapers and working as a copy editor for The Los Angeles Times for 20 years, while writing plays on the side. When he retired from journalism, he did not retire from playwriting.
Most of his scripts were comedies, though even a Sakamoto laugh-riot was grounded in moments of sorrow and regret. He wrote about postwar Hawaii, the dreams of working-class local Japanese families and the meaning of “home.”
Throughout his five-decade career, Sakamoto continued to grow and expand his range. He devoted years of research into writing the 442nd/100th Battalion historical drama “Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire,” which played at the University of Hawaii’s Kennedy Theatre in 1994 and the Blaisdell Concert Hall in 1998.
He also tried his hand at darker fare with the ghost story “Obake,” which played at Kumu Kahua Theatre and is being made into a film by director Denny Hironaga.
During the filming of the piece, retitled “Obake Neko,” Sakamoto lived at Hironaga’s house for three weeks. “He was the sweetest man,” Karen Hironaga, Denny’s wife, said. “We would listen to old music and play ‘Name that Tune,’ and he would always get it right. He loved music.”
He told friends he wanted to write a musical, and had been working on various creative projects before his health started to decline.
Allan Okubo acted in many productions of Sakamoto’s plays, starting with “Pilgrimage” in 1991.
“We were about a week from opening when Jim Nakamoto, the director, called Ed in Los Angeles to discuss the play. This was before the Internet, so communication was done much slower and more personal,” Okubo said. “In their discussion Jim mentioned to Ed that the ending was a little strange. Ed asked what he meant. Jim described the ending and why it was so abrupt. Ed disagreed and said it didn’t end that way. Finally they discussed the page numbers, and Ed said that there were about six more pages. Apparently when Ed had mailed the script, it didn’t have those pages and nobody thought anything was missing.”
A few days later the missing pages arrived in the mail, and the play went on without a hitch, yet another hit for Sakamoto. Even more telling was that Sakamoto just fixed the problem without much fuss. “He never played the ‘I’m the playwright!’ card,” actor Devon Nekoba said.
In person Sakamoto was charming and avuncular. When he talked about his work, he did his best to demystify the creative process, emphasizing that being a writer was more about effort than talent or luck. He was happy to talk about what he had written, but he wouldn’t discuss what he was currently writing. He didn’t want to dissipate the energy of a piece before he was certain what the story would become.
Actor Dann Seki first met Sakamoto in 1989 when he was cast in “Manoa Valley.”
“He came into town a couple of weeks before the show opened and would come to our rehearsals. Ho, the pressure!” Seki said. “He would sit in the back row, and every time I would sneak a peek to check his reaction, he would be looking down at his knee. It looked like he was sleeping. He didn’t laugh at the funny parts. He looked totally bored. Since it was my first time on stage, I was devastated. I later learned, during our late-night talks at Zippy’s, that that was his way of listening to the words and sounds of his play.”
Over the years, Seki performed in 17 productions of Sakamoto’s plays. Though many performers were thrilled to be Sakamoto regulars, Seki performed Sakamoto’s work more than any other actor.
Kumu Kahua Theatre is scheduled to do a remount of Sakamoto’s uproarious “Aloha Las Vegas” in the summer. Seki will undoubtedly play the lead again.
“I love his stories. I love the way his words fit my mouth,” Seki said. “His characters talk like I talk. His characters think like I think.”
Sakamoto is survived by numerous nieces, nephews and cousins in Hawaii. Services are pending.
— Reprinted by permission