James A. Nakamoto,1932-2013


Best known as “Mr. Nak” to his former students at McKinley High School and to those he directed in many theater productions over the years, Jim Nakamoto was one of Honolulu’s gifts to the stage.

He retired from teaching in December 1989 after 27 years but frequently came back to direct shows. For a time he staged a show every four years featuring faculty and staff.

And when McKinley’s vintage theater reopened after extensive renovations in 1998, he called alumni of the McKinley Theatre Group back to help rededicate the building with reunion show; some flew in from the Mainland to do it. Among the students who appeared was the Hawaii comic actor James Grant Benton, actor and singer William Hao and other theater veterans.

Jim Nakamoto’s stage credits cover various Hawaii theater groups, as well as Los Angeles’ East West Players (view EWP site), where he directed numerous Asian-themed plays.

But he is probably best known for his work with Kumu Kahua (view site), the company noted for spotlighting locally written scripts and those with Hawaii story lines.

He often paired with playwright Edward Sakamoto; their most recent team effort at Kumu Kahua was Sakamoto’s play, “It’s All Relative,” in 2011.

Nakamoto organized and ran for years one of the most active high school drama programs in Hawaii at McKinley High School. He has also on occasion acted and directed for Honolulu Theatre for Youth (view HTY play list) and Hawaii Performing Arts Company.

He started his teaching career at Waianae High School in 1959, staying until 1963, when he was recruited to take over McKinley’s Drama Program. While at Waianae, he first became involved with high school drama by helping the junior class put on a play as a fund-raiser. He followed that production the next year with a drama class and a small drama festival.

During the summers of 1959-1963, he attended classes at the University of Hawaii to obtain his teacher certification. At the same time, he became actively involved in the drama program at the University, and greatly enhanced his knowledge about theatre as an art form.

In the fall of 1963, McKinley High School’s principal asked Nakamoto to come to McKinley and develop a drama program. He started there with one class and over the course of the next few years, continued adding classes until his schedule included only drama classes. In 1964, he and his students formed the McKinley Theatre Group (view MTG play list) as an official campus organization.

Early on, Nakamoto, based on his HTY association, realized that performances for school groups during the school day almost guaranteed a sold-out performance, so during the 1965-1966 school years, he instituted, based on the HTY model, a week of performances for school groups who would bus themselves to McKinley for the performance. Nakamoto used the profits to fund the next season. By his third year at McKinley, these school shows had made the theatre group self-sufficient.

For the McKinley productions, Nakamoto chose primarily musicals for family audiences and plays that were appropriate for as low at the 5th grade. He said he seldom staged a play aimed solely at lower elementary grades.

From 1964 until 1981, the theatre group, with Nakamoto as director, averaged three productions each year, with almost every production having a week of performances for bussed-in school groups, as well as their one or two weekends of public performances. Initially, Nakamoto opened the school performances only to other schools within the Honolulu district; however, by 1965, schools outside the Honolulu district began expressing an interest in attending. By 1966, he had opened the performances to all schools on Oahu.

In the 1970’s, for a period of about six years, the theatre group toured one production each spring to the lower elementary grades of other schools. The cast rehearsed the show in the fall and performed in the spring. Nakamoto chose shows primarily an hour or less in length, and used their proceeds to send the drama students involved to thespian conferences on the mainland. The touring productions stopped when the particular group of students interested in touring graduated.

In 1981, Nakamoto returned to the university to work on his master’s degree in theatre, which he received in 1982. He returned to McKinley in the fall of 1983 and shared drama teaching duties at McKinley with Mary Lou Sandla, while he worked half-time at Kaimuki High School attempting to establish a drama program using the school’s new theatre. Facing a lack of support on behalf of Kaimuki’s administration, he gave up the attempt at the end of that school year.

He returned to McKinley full-time for the 1984-1985 school years, but gave up teaching drama. He taught English and a class, which produced the school’s yearbooks for 1984-1985 and 1985-1986. For the 1986-1987 school years, he took over McKinley’s new Humanities Learning Center. As head of the Humanities Learning Center, Nakamoto produced Thirteen Daughters that first year. The following year, he hired the Honolulu Theatre for Youth to produce, using McKinley students, a play revolving around scenes from the works of William Shakespeare. For the 1988-1989 and 1989-1990 school years (his last official year of teaching), he taught no drama courses, nor did he produce any shows.

But he came back in retirement to direct a series of productions.

View the full list of shows Jim produced and directed at McKinley High School.


2 thoughts on “Tribute

  1. “Everything You Do Is Theatre Rockne”….One Of The Most Inspiring Of Remarks Conveyed By Mr Nak. While Assisting Him In Kumu Kahua’s “Ulua”…Be Creative And Feel Your Talent….He Allowed Me Privy To The Direct The Backstage Supervisory To The Script…Frankly, That Opportunity Was Priceless!…Thank You Sir For Allowing Me To “Fly My Own Plane”…

  2. I don’t want to sound all “drama” but those of us who had the privilege to be taught & work with Nak revered him. Why? He was a straight talker … no BS. Aside from my parents, I knew I’d get the honest truth regarding my performance or behavior from Nak. He demanded excellence and because he gave so much of himself to us, he inspired us to work just as hard, and to take risks and stretch ourselves for that great performance. I worked very closely with Nak during the years ’74-’76 designing costumes and make-up for our productions. He entrusted me with a “carte blanche” Purchase Order at Kino’s, “go buy what you need to make those costumes”. Such an “adult” responsibility for someone 16-17 years old! Over the years I occasionally reflected back on the trust he had in me and how he had such an influential role in building my confidence. Seeing his smiling face in this picture, the sweater wrapped around his shoulders, I’m reminded of all the great times I, we all had under his watchful and loving eyes. God is lucky to have you, but we all miss you here . . .

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