‘Man’s Favor Devil’s Plan’ world premiere treats racism in 1930s
Nic Few, left, and Darrell Phillip in The Robey Theatre Company's production of 'Man's Favor Devil's Plan.' | Jermaine Alexander

LOS ANGELES—Make a deal with the devil, and you’ll always come out on the losing end. That’s the thesis of a new play by Kwik Jones, directed by C. Julian White, that’s running for one more weekend at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, a commission by the Robey Theatre Company, founded in 1994 to foster a community of artists to produce plays about global Black experiences. The name of the company is taken from Paul Robeson’s nickname.

Mans Favor Devils Plan is set in Los Angeles in 1938. The single set takes us to the loading dock at the back of Mr. Avery’s Hotel. The cast comprises Mr. Avery himself (to be specific, the younger Mr. Avery, who is managing the hotel and trying to prove himself as a worthy successor to the still powerful senior Mr. Avery, his father), and five Black employees of the hotel, the one man in the kitchen, the other a bellhop, and the three women in housekeeping who also have some kitchen duties.

The intersection of white and Black at that time and place was entirely defined by the legacy of slavery and the subsequent system of sharecropping which kept poor people in a virtually permanent debt slavery they could never escape. Unless they could—which millions across the South did during the Great Migration. Millions of Black people, mostly younger workers contemplating their future prospects, looked north to Detroit, Chicago, Youngstown, Milwaukee, New York, and Los Angeles, where they could find good union jobs in auto, steel, the post office, and establish a foundation for a better life for themselves and their children.

“It’s hard being a man when you’re treated like a boy,” says Butchie, the dishwasher.

Mr. Avery—and the title of the play makes it clear he is the devil in this story—is a kind of urban sharecropping overseer. He pushes his “favors” on employees, maybe a pay advance, maybe an introduction to a Big Band leader, maybe some help with an inconvenient pregnancy, or a bracelet. But the exchange in return is always of greater consequence than the original favor—sexual access with the young maids, a manager’s percentage if a talented dancer gets a job with a touring band, offering a sandwich to someone, maybe just keeping a secret secret. Sometimes Avery just outright steals things from one of his employees, threatening to claim it was his property to begin with—and who are the police and the justice system gonna believe? The idea of a long term in jail or on a state work gang is enough to quell any protest.

If Avery is himself a victim of abuse from his father, that is no justification to turn around and take cruel advantage of his workforce, and using racial slurs against them—all the while puffing himself up on how good he is to be passing his favors around. “One hand washes the other,” he’s always saying, “I help people.”

In many ways the playwright extrapolates from the very specific time and place to make a larger statement about the nation, its pervasive hypocrisy that allows ordinary citizens to look the other way when basic democratic principles are being abused. The African-American characters are forced to navigate a narrow channel between tolerance of such abuse and their own instinct for self-defense.

Here is where the play is fractured, but not beyond repair if it possibly goes on to further productions. For example, in 1938 FDR is in the White House, there’s a New Deal going on, the rest of the world is in crisis, the Soviet Union, despite its many problems, is still something of a beacon to the world. Yet this world has no presence in the hothouse of the play, not even the highly progressive New Deal, whose conditions were inherently racist if it was to be passed by Southern Democrats in Congress, exclude farm and domestic workers, for example, exactly the kinds of employment most Black people in the South engaged in. Nor does the playwright give any indication of the NAACP or labor organizing at the time, movements that helped transform mass consciousness.

The cast of ‘Man’s Favor Devil’s Plan’ with the Robey Theatre’s original founders, Ben Guillory and Danny Glover. | Eric Gordon / People’s World

I won’t disclose the ending, of course, but I question if the play meets certain expectations in the theater—that people will grow and change, that the denouement at least leaves the characters in a different place from where we started.

Still, these are powerful performances providing considerable insight into this shameful period that may not, in many places, look all that different from many parts of America, and certainly many other parts of the world, even today. The cast of Mans Favor Devils Plan includes Christina Childress, Nic Few, Matt Jennings, Ashlee Olivia Jones, Crystal Nix, and Darrell Phillip.

The night I attended, the original founders, Ben Guillory and Danny Glover, were present, and posed with the cast afterward.

Mans Favor Devils Plan runs through Sun., Nov. 20, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013. Performances are Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 p.m., and Sun. at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are available here or call (213) 489-7402. Word to the wise: The website lists the Sun. performance as sold out. This play deals with adult content, including violence and racism. It is unsuitable for small children.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.

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