'WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO JOHN BOY KIHANO?'
When a child vanishes
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
Clearly, the father loves his son. Look at the way he treats him, the boy seated on the father's knee as the two of them fish with a bamboo pole.
The father's arms, great cannons of strength, circle the child, shield him from harm. His words are full of patience as he explains the fish in the sea.
And the boy is happy, a 5-year-old full of wonder. Clearly, he feels safe.
Then the father does the unthinkable: He returns home without his son and tells his family he gave the boy to a relative that no one has ever heard of. Suddenly his family is thrust into a twilight zone where mystery and reality hold equal sway and the father's explanation for his actions borders on madness.
This is not the story of Peter Boy Kema, haunting and similar as it is to the saga of the missing Hilo boy. Instead, it is a scene from Kumu Kahua Theatre's new production, "What Ever Happened to John Boy Kihano?" by Susan Soon He Stanton.
The playwright, a 27-year-old Punahou graduate now working on a master's degree at the Yale School of Drama, drew inspiration from the case of Peter Boy. Stanton sought to explore what happens to a family when a child vanishes — "how a family might react when its foundation is shaken" — but she did not want to recreate the tragedy of the Kema case.
"I didn't want to try and tell that story," Stanton said by phone from New Haven, Conn. "I didn't think it was my place. It is not an attempt to explain that case or what happened. It is not an explanation or sympathizing with a side. It's very different. The parents in this story are very different."
Stanton began writing the play in 2000, only a few years after the Peter Boy story caught the public's attention.
Peter Boy disappeared sometime in the spring or early summer of 1997. He would have turned 6 that May. His father, Peter Kema Sr., said he gave the boy to a distant relative named Auntie Rose Makuakane. He told police he met her while job-hunting on O'ahu in August 1997. He was running out of money and living in 'A'ala Park, so Kema felt the boy would be better off with Auntie Rose.
No one has ever proven that Auntie Rose exists.
In one of the last photographs taken of Peter Boy, the doe-eyed child offered a smile that masked years of abuse. He had been starved, forced to sleep outside at night and driven around in the trunk of the family car, according to Family Court documents. His siblings told authorities the boy's father beat him bloody and once shot at him with a BB gun.
No one has ever been arrested in connection with the case.
Even though Stanton did not want to create a play with a vision that dark, she found Peter Boy's story compelling. Stanton was so taken by the image of Auntie Rose that she named her play's mysterious counterpart "Auntie Maile Kapuhanui."
"There was something about this story that was so strange, where all the pieces didn't add up," Stanton said. "I tried to create that in my play, where there are different sides and different versions of reality."
But Stanton, who grew up in 'Aiea and Kalihi, also wanted to create a loving family that Hawai'i audiences could easily identify with. For all its mystery, the play is filled with laughter.
"I really wanted to create a play that was very local," she said. "And I was also just interested in the way that families communicate with each other. A lot of humor. A lot of shorthand conversations. A lot of my scenes are people talking story around the dinner table or out in the garage eating pupus."
The play, which won the 2006 Kumu Kahua Theatre/University of Hawai'i-Manoa Theatre Department contest, earned her acceptance into Yale, Stanton said.
"It was the first pidgin play they ever got," she said.
Kumu Kahua is staging the production at its tiny theater on Merchant Street. The place is so intimate that director Kati Kuroda reminded her 10 actors that they will be close enough to see emotions on the faces in the audience. That's important because when Kuroda first read the play, it gave her goosebumps.
The play is a collision between the supernatural and the real world — between what the father sees and what his family sees, said Kuroda, a drama teacher at University Laboratory School.
" 'John Boy' is a story that has all these clues given to the audience but there is no clear-cut answer," she said. "The audience has to pay attention. They have to put in their mind what they think happened. They have to reach their own conclusion."
Kuroda counseled her cast against making comparisons to Peter Boy.
"Some people are worried that relatives of Peter Boy will come to see the show," she said. "You are bringing up a situation that is like their situation, in a sense, that the father gives a child away. I said you just have to always think this is not that story."
The Auntie Maile character gave Kuroda chicken skin. In early drafts of the play, the mystery woman was a statuesque character the audience could see. By the time she started casting, however, Auntie Maile had become a character that only John Boy's father can see, Kuroda said.
John Boy's father is played by Brutus LaBenz, a burly 28-year-old relative newcomer who works for the city and coaches football at Punahou.
"He must convince the audience that she is there, that he is seeing her," Kuroda said. "He is talking to her and everyone around watching him do that, is saying he is losing it. Whenever he is going through those images, it is kind of eerie."
LaBenz said the part of John Kihano is difficult. It's his first role in English, having done all his previous acting with a group that presented its plays in Hawaiian. More accustomed to humor and heroes, LaBenz found John to be a complicated character.
"At the beginning of the play he is fishing with the kid and interacting with the family, and he is kind of this loveable uncle chap, one of the guys I know as an uncle," said LaBenz, who grew up in Olomana and now lives in Mo'ili'ili. "Then he takes this sharp turn that everyone just looks down upon."
The play's youngest actor is Ku'umakaonaona "Maka" Bailon, the 5-year-old boy from Waipi'o who plays John Boy Kihano. The kindergartner, who attends the Hawaiian language immersion school Kula Kaiapuni 'o Waiau, has about seven lines and gets to stay up past bedtime on rehearsal nights.
Maka doesn't know the whole story of John Boy Kihano, said his father, local actor Jarod Bailon.
"I kind of explained to him a little bit but not a lot," Bailon said. "He asked, 'How come they're all crying?' I said, 'Because you're lost.' "
But for all the distance that playwright and director have tried to put between John Boy and Peter Boy, Bailon thinks audiences will bridge the gap. When friends learn his son is in the play — when they hear its title — they suspect the worst, he said.
"They go, 'Is that the story of the kid who got lost, whose dad gave him away?' " Bailon said. "They automatically think he's going to die in the show."
He doesn't tell them if that's what will happen. He tells them to buy a ticket.
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.