There are some shows out there that try to break down stereotypes and give a voice to groups that typically haven’t been given one, and playwright Katori Hall’s latest show with Starz, ‘P-Valley,’ is not one of those shows—because it doesn’t just try, it succeeds.
‘P-Valley’ is based off of Hall’s play of a similar name, which she worked on for over a decade traveling the country producing regional productions and various workshops of the show before shifting the story to work for television. ‘P-Valley’ follows the lives of strip club dancers in the “Dirty Delta of Mississippi” who instead of showcasing stereotypical problems, actually highlight how strong and beautiful women in the industry can be while also simultaneously shining a light on women and people of color in a new way. To do that behind the scenes, the award-winning playwright made sure to have diversity in the writing rooms, in the directors chairs and as heads of the department.
Hall, who is the creator, showrunner, EP and penned a few of the episodes as well, sat down with Metro to discuss what went into making ‘P-Valley’ and what she hopes audiences take away from this uniquely different, yet important show.
What was your main motivation to adapt your stage show for the screen with ‘P-Valley?’
The play ‘Pussy Valley’ was the culmination of six years of research. I went to clubs all across the nation and interviewed over 40 women, [and] I even took a pole dancing class to get my flexy on. I didn’t last long because I couldn’t do even a tenth of what these super-sheroes could do on the pole. It is hard work. It is art. When I saw the production at ‘Mixed Blood’ in 2015, the play was bursting at the seams with all of the characters and plots it contained. It took me six years to research this story, and I think it will take me six years to tell this story. These characters have legs for days—literally and figuratively. The television medium of long-form story-telling was what these characters deserved if I was going to be able to portray them with nuance and love.
What went into that adaptation from stage to screen?
First off, I had to learn how to be a showrunner. Jumping from theatre to television is no easy feat, the learning curve is extraordinarily high. In the writers’ room, I learned to be open to others’ often better ideas. I had to learn how to craft a story that was open-ended, instead of one that had a particular parenthesis, like a play. Production served up its own challenges. You have to be part visionary, part manager, part therapist, and part general to shepherd a group of more than 300 souls towards a common yet imaginary goal. The stakes are high, and there is no class to take or book to read to learn how to do this job, you just have to do it. I’m grateful that I had an exquisite team from prep to production teaching me, guiding me and trusting me every step of the way.
Why choose Mississippi as the show’s location?
I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, which we jokingly call MemphisSippi. Memphis is a stone’s throw from the Mississippi state line and considered the top of the Delta. I wanted to show folks the South that I know and love—in all its darkness and its light. The history of slavery is America’s heavy inheritance, and that complicated heritage is felt even more so in the state of Mississippi. It feels like a place stuck in the past, the roots of racism being hard to excavate. I wanted to shed light on the pervasive discrimination that not only black folks still feel, but those of us who reside at the intersection of race, class and gender. For all its darkness, there is light. The South is a place that upholds the bonds of family and “framily,” friends who are family, in ways that I’ve often only seen in parts of Africa. There is a warmth that exudes from this beautiful yet broken place. I wanted to hold up a mirror to Mississippi—with its food, dark past, and potential, it embodies the contradictions of being American, free and in bondage, in the most powerful of ways.
What went into creating these characters? It’s not typically what you would see with a show in this setting, why was that important for you?
I say these characters are my ancestors and my descendants all at once. As a black southern woman who writes, I know there is great power in the pen, and story makes misrepresented folks feel seen, their voices heard. Historically, black folks have been dehumanized by stereotypical imagery, so I’ve always felt it my responsibility to—whenever I was given a platform whether it was the stage or the screen—to paint us as the complicated beings we are. I wanted to look in the mirror that I know media can be and see not only my reflection, but my family’s. And I want to hit them with the spotlight of truth. And it’s time for women working in the strip club world to take their rightful place under the shine of the sun I know powerful storytelling can be.
Why call the show “Delta Noir,” and what made you choose that phrasing?
Delta Noir takes traditional noir and does a lil’ twerk on it. Traditional noir, with its juxtaposition of light against dark, sharp contrasts and expressionistic cinematography always struck my eye. However, in old school noir, I never saw myself. No black woman as a detective, no queer man as a fully fleshed human being, so I took the genre and did a revision, embracing shadowy frames and fusing them with color, grit and style. The “Delta” part is the quirk of being Southern. Noir usually doesn’t have a sense of humor about itself, but in ‘P-Valley,’ there are laughs galore. I think Uncle Clifford, the gender-fluid momager of the club called Pynk, will become one of the most meme-able characters in recent TV history.
You’ve worked on quite a few different shows in your career, but as the EP, creator, showrunner and writer of multiple episodes, how does your experience working on ‘P-Valley’ compare?
I’ve only staffed on one other TV show, ‘Legends,’ and mostly worked on my theatre projects. These were collaborations, but none that required me to make the kinds of decisions at every level like my job on ‘P-Valley.’ There are a million questions that you have to answer daily and it can be overwhelming. You’re interfacing with the network, actors, DPs, directors…. you’re the captain. I will say the one thing that has gotten me through is that I always know what I want—even every character’s nail polish color. My internal creative compass is always pointing in the right direction, and it makes it incredibly easy to communicate when you know what your true north is.
Overall, what do you hope people take away from the show?
These women have been stigmatized for the work they do. I want people to see past the masks and the skin and love them for the human beings that they are—complicated women with stories that are worthy of being told with empathy, heart and respect.
‘P-Valley’ premieres on Starz July 12.