A friend of one of Hawaiʻi’s most iconic and celebrated playwrights, Edward Sakamoto, has gifted his entire catalog of plays to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of Theatre and Dance, an extremely rare endowment. The gift gives UH full ownership and copyright authority of the award-winning writer’s 19 plays which will help support theatrical productions in the department as well as around the world. Sakamoto, a UH Mānoa alumnus, died in 2015. The Oʻahu native wrote highly-acclaimed plays in pidgin and specialized in nostalgic comedies and family dramas largely focused on local Japanese in Hawaiʻi.
“We are honored to work together with local community theatre artists and scholars to preserve Ed Sakamoto’s plays and legacy,” said Markus Wessendorf, chair of the UH Mānoa Department of Theatre and Dance. “Our priority will be to extend the rich cultural reach of these plays; the funds raised from licensing his plays will be used to support that endeavor and to celebrate and nurture local playwriting in Hawaiʻi”.
Sakamoto’s most popular plays include Aloha Las Vegas, about a widower contemplating a move off island, and Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire, a play about the all Nisei (second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry) 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. His Hawaiʻi No Ka Oi trilogy (The Taste of Kona Coffee, Mānoa Valley and The Life of the Land) follows a Japanese-American family in Hawaiʻi for a 60-year period.
“The characters are instantly recognizable to local people because it’s like your friend or your neighbor down the street from small kid time,” said Justina Mattos, an assistant professor of performing arts at UH Hilo. “You just recognize them right away. Reading or watching the plays introduces people not only to the local characters and the local culture but also to sociological issues that may have been important at any given time in Hawaiʻi.”
UH Mānoa alumnus Harry Wong directed several of Sakamoto’s plays at Kumu Kahua Theatre. Sakamoto was so moved by Wong’s ability to bring his work to life he wrote a sequel to one of the productions he directed.
“He was a man of the theatre…Ed knew how to tell a story using the medium,” Wong explained. “He never shared a play until he was pau; he wouldn’t even say he was working on a play until it was complete in his mind.”
Sakamoto’s plays have been produced in Hawaiʻi and at prestigious regional theatres in Los Angeles and New York. UH Mānoa theatre faculty have invited key members of Hawaiʻi’s theatrical and literary community to an advisory board. The group will assist UH Mānoa faculty in establishing an initiative to preserve Sakamoto’s plays for future productions and publications. Companies, organizations and schools interested in producing his work can contact the department for more information.
Through the generosity of another donor, the Edward Sakamoto Fund has been established at UH Foundation to provide annual awards to UH Mānoa Theatre and Dance students focusing on playwriting, and support department activities related to playwriting.
“I do hope more of our Hawaiʻi students come and study at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa so that they can tell their stories,” said Tammy Hailiʻōpua Baker, an associate professor of the UH Mānoa Hawaiian Theatre Program. “It’s really important for all of us to tell the stories of our community so that those stories are recorded.”
While earning a master’s degree at UH Mānoa, Baker was a recipient of a performing arts scholarship Sakamoto previously sponsored at the university.
This effort is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Enhancing Student Success (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.