Reading Lee Cataluna’s column in the Star-Advertiser on the passing of Hawai‘i-born playwright Edward Sakamoto in Los Angeles filled me with deep sadness. I knew that Ed’s health was failing, but I didn’t think his life would end so soon.
We weren’t tight buddies. Just friends who sometimes got together with our mutual friend, Karen Yamamoto Hackler, for lunch or dinner when he was in town.
I met Ed for the first time in 2003 while working on a project for the Japanese American National Museum that took me to Los Angeles. Jon Shirota and his wife Barbara were meeting me at my hotel — we were going to get a bite to eat. Jon is the Maui-born author of “Lucky Come Hawaii,” which had been adapted into a play and staged by Kumu Kahua Theatre. He’s also written other moving stories and essays, a few of which were published in the Herald.
I don’t remember if I knew that Ed would be joining us. Until that evening in Little Tokyo, I only knew of Ed — I had never met him. I remember how awed I was to finally meet him in person. I had seen so many of his wonderful plays, most of them staged by Kumu Kahua Theatre. Ed was such a talent — he captured so beautifully the specialness of life in Hawai‘i.
Jon and Ed were local boys who had carved our lives and careers in Los Angeles. They had California zip codes, but if you looked deep into the hearts, you would see Hawai‘i. You could never take that away from them, and that’s why they got together every week for lunch — to talk story about this and that, and, inevitably, about home — Hawai‘i.
I read Lee Cataluna’s beautiful remembrance of Ed and then scrolled down to the comments section, thinking I’d see two-to-three dozen comments. Much to my surprise, there were only five, and most of them had nothing to do with Ed or his body of work.
One comment left me especially sad: “Ho, I never went heard of dis guy,” the person wrote. “How could you not have heard of Ed Sakamoto or his wonderful plays?!” I thought to myself. His plays had always reaffirmed my love for my Island home.
And then I stepped back for a moment and thought about it a bit more and I realized why this person had never heard of Ed. I thought back to that night in L.A., to how low-key and unassuming Ed had been. Ed Sakamoto wasn’t a tantaran kind of guy. He was happy just sitting on a bench, soaking up life in our neighborhoods. Whenever he was back home, he was happy to meet up with his ‘Iolani School classmates and enjoy simple meals with close friends at places like Likelike Drive-In.
I asked Karen Yamamoto Hackler, longtime friend, storyteller and stage veteran, what she will remember about Ed. Karen had roles in three of Ed’s plays —“Aloha Las Vegas,” “The Taste of Kona Coffee” and “The Life of the Land” — and their friendship ran deep.
“Ed’s writing celebrates Hawai‘i and its people. He makes you ponder about the meaning of home. He captured the dilemmas and joys of Hawai‘i folks, yet his truths resonated in people everywhere,” she said.
“A part of him yearned and dreamed of leaving Los Angeles and coming back here. It came out in his writing. He once told me he wondered if his playwriting would dry up if he moved back to Hawai‘i. I told him it might be the opposite. He might be inspired to write even more.”
One thing Karen celebrates with Ed’s passing is that he can collaborate once again with his good friend and favorite director, former McKinley High School drama teacher Jim Nakamoto, who passed several years ago.
“When I last talked with Ed a few months before he died, his regret was that he couldn’t come back to Hawai’i for another visit. He said he was weak and needed oxygen. Now he’s free to come home anytime — his spirit can come to Hawai‘i whenever he wants. His body won’t hold him back anymore. When Kumu Kahua Theatre remounts Ed’s “Aloha Las Vegas” next summer, I know Ed will be there, watching and enjoying!!!” she said.
“I realize Ed mentored me in the art of friendship,” said Karen. “He was a genuine friend, fully present in every interaction.”
Aloha ‘oe, Ed. Home is where the heart is, and you are home.