Working with a team of women, the playwright tells a humanizing story through the female gaze.
Diamond-studded G-strings, female strippers writhing spread-eagle down a pole, banging trap music, shady real estate deals, complicated motherhood, and the church. It’s no wonder award-winning playwright Katori Hall decided to take her 2015 stage production of Pussy Valley to the small screen where millions more people can experience the many complexities of life in the Dirty South over the course of eight one-hour episodes. “It was overstuffed,” she admits. “There was so much going on.”
But with the new Starz series, modestly titled yet just as explicit as ever, P-Valley, Hall was able to flesh out these gloriously entangled themes and images—and, even more provocatively, show how they are intrinsically embedded in the fabric of the Mississippi Delta. Fans who’ve been following Hall’s career for years already know that the Memphis native is no stranger to exploring the history of the South and its persistent racial politics in her work. But fewer people may realize that for six years, she was just as feverishly investigating it through its Black strip club culture, which was such a fond part of her life growing up.
“These girls are superheroes [and] what they do should be respected,” Hall says. “This world deserves to be explored more deeply.” In an industry where few women, especially Black women, are granted opportunities to step behind the camera to tell an unapologetically Black story, the fact that Hall—who had little screen experience—is the showrunner, writer, and a producer on the hotly anticipated cable series is a major feat.
That just underscores Hall’s unflinching vision for the show that centers on the eponymous strip club in which a young woman (Elarica Johnson) has escaped a personal tragedy, a seasoned stripper (the magnetic Brandee Evans) is just weeks away from saving up enough money to open a dance studio, and its gender-fluid owner (Nicco Annan) is juggling the day-to-day business and keeping eviction at bay.
She may have compromised on P-Valley’s shortened title, but Hall was adamant about its nudity, female crew, relentlessly female gaze, and its “slanguage.” “It’s a strip club, so don’t be clutching your pearls over naked women,” she laughs. “We are very aware that we are dealing with a history of hyper-sexualized images of Black women. But we knew that we were going to be lensing these women with a very humanistic approach.”
Ahead, Hall talks further about bringing the Dirty South’s strip club culture to the mainstream, the thin line between sexual empowerment and exploitation, and the hushed relationship between the pole and the pulpit.
You’re widely known for some of your more historical plays, like The Mountaintop and Hoodoo Love. What compelled you to write Pussy Valley and then bring it to the screen?
I’m always exploring my Southern roots in every play that I’ve written. It showcases the fact that I’m a daughter of the South. So, in that vein, strip club culture, particularly Southern Black strip club culture, was part of my coming of age. I was always in those spaces. I was going there [to] see one of the most amazing shows on earth; women climbing up on those poles and putting forth this theatrical experience. I would be moved by the way the women were flying around sometimes two stories in the air. I was in awe of their strength and flexibility.
I was like, These girls are superheroes. I had moved to New York and [was] in school, and I wanted to get my little sexy on. I remember taking a pole dancing class. It was truly one of the hardest classes I have ever taken. As a matter of fact, I was on the spinner pole and had to run out of the studio because I got nauseated. In that moment, I was like, “What these women do should be respected.” So that was my entry point into the world—me trying to replicate the amazing theatrical and acrobatic feats that I saw coming of age down south.
I was like, “This world deserves to be explored more deeply.” I really wanted to bring the women front and center in terms of telling us their stories, understanding why they chose the profession and why the profession chose them. So, I ended up researching for six years. I went to so many strip clubs [and] interviewed so many women. I ended up working on the play and doing dance workshops. This all culminated into the stage production, which premiered in 2015 at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.
When I saw it, I immediately said to myself, “Girl, this is a TV show,” because it was overstuffed. There was so much going on. But at the center of the story were these amazing characters that you wanted to be with for years, not just for three hours (that’s how long the play was). So I quickly pivoted and pitched it. Luckily, Starz saw what I wanted to do, which was humanize women who had been dehumanized for so long. And for four years, I developed it from the stage play into the TV show.
I feel as though P-Valley as a television series is the next chapter in terms of my creative life as a storyteller widening the ways in which I tell stories and [use] different mediums. At the core of it is this Southern gal who was always reflecting to the world the beauty and the darkness of the South.
What is it about Southern culture that you aim to investigate or highlight for audiences?
I sit at this complicated intersection of race, class, and gender as a Black woman who grew up in the South. And I have inherited a complicated history. I think all Americans have inherited this history of slavery and oppression. In Memphis, and often Mississippi, the weight of that history is felt even more. I’m always interested in unpacking that history and showing people it’s actually not the past; it is very present. We see it in our politics, in how we as Americans still interact with each other, the fact that the Black body has been dehumanized for so long. That is why we are seeing these Black men being killed by police.
I hope that this story provides a way of humanizing a group of people that are demanding human rights.
My art is always a way to continue addressing all these levels of injustice. And I hope that this story provides a way of humanizing a group of people that are demanding human rights. The most powerful thing about the story is that it creates empathy. It doesn’t necessarily change policy, but it does impact the policymakers. I am always trying to dig into the complicated and dark parts of our history and culture to try and affect social change.
Another cultural marker of the South is the intersection of the church and this X-rated nightlife at Pussy Valley. People who have never lived in the South may be shocked to see this depiction, but it’s so real.
Absolutely. The secular and the sacred live side by side. You think about people going to the club on Saturday night and in a few hours, they’re rolling up in church on Sunday morning. I really feel as though that storyline of Mercedes’s [Evans] hypocritical mom [Harriett D. Foy] looking down on her child and participating in respectability politics to a certain extent is just something you’re raised to do. The church is definitely the biggest cultural cornerstone down south. [For] a large percentage of people, if they’re not going to church on Sunday morning, they’re at least listening to it on the radio Sunday morning.
But what is so interesting is how segregated our churches still are down south. I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to look at the patriarchy of the church, particularly the Black church. A lot of people don’t even want to touch that. There’s a very interesting commonality exposed over the course of the season where you see Mercedes on her pedestal, the stage in the strip club where she’s fighting for respect, and her mother up on the pulpit but they won’t let her speak. She has to sing and perform and draw money out of sinners’ pockets.
But they’re both doing the same thing. They’re still pushing up against patriarchy, but in two completely different spaces. It just goes to show that it doesn’t matter where you are as a woman, you still have to fight against the goliath that is patriarchy in this country.
I’ve been calling it Pussy Valley, like the stage production, but the title of the series is, of course, P-Valley. Did you change the title because you got pushback about it?
That was the biggest fight we had—and me and Starz didn’t fight! They were really good partners. But they had a preliminary conversation with the carriers—Comcast, Time Warner, all of them—and those folks were like, “We’re not going to put a show on our platform that has the word pussy in it.” So it ended up being a business decision. We didn’t want to create this amazing show and people not be able to have access to it. We decided that we would basically truncate the title, a nickname of the nickname. However, in the main title and in the dialogue in the show, it is very clear that everyone calls the place Pussy Valley.
What was actually nonnegotiable for you throughout the adaptation process?
Everything was nonnegotiable. If you are doing a show that is set in a strip club, you have to be honest. So that means we have to be honest about the level of nudity. Don’t be clutching your pearls over naked women. We are very aware that we are dealing with a history of hyper-sexualized images of Black women. But because we knew that this show was going to be centered through the female gaze, we knew that we were going to be lensing these women with a very humanistic approach and that we had to be sensitive.
There was a balance. But at the same time, we had to be authentic to a Black strip club. We talked about being truthful [about] the way people spoke. There had been a conversation—that I was not a part of and thank God, because I would have read everybody for filth—about subtitling the show because of the specificity of the language. I was like, “I am not going to lie about how these people speak. I am not going to whitewash the sound.”
I am not going to lie about how these people speak. I am not going to whitewash the sound.
We as Black folks grow up and have to be bicultural in that we’ve got to learn how to code-switch. We have to learn how to walk in a white world. We have to do all these things and strip ourselves of these cultural markers in order to fit in and make other people feel comfortable. We’re not going to do that with this show. You are going to have to learn their language [and] understand their rules. This is their world. They are the kings and queens, and we have to learn their tongue, their English.
And it’s okay; it’s a valid form of communication. It is a fusion of dialect and accent and slang. I like to use the word slanguage to describe how the characters speak. I’ve often been that Black girl in a mostly white space, and the only one having to “fix my tongue” in order for people to understand me. There came a point in my life where I was like, I am country as hell. Don’t replace that.
Was hiring an exclusively female crew also among your nonnegotiables?
Absolutely. When I started interviewing directors, I actually did interview a few men. I would ask, “What is your definition of the female gaze?” The men never really had an answer. I think it had a lot to do with [the fact that] they never have to think about it. No one ever asked them that question because they’re always in the majority when it comes to being a director. But artists are affected by their own lived experiences. As a woman walking in this world, a Black woman walking along this world, a trans woman walking in this world, this life is going to be different from your typical white man [in terms of] how people interact with you.
So the artists that ended up rising to the top were able to answer that question—not only due to their own lived experiences but because the work that they previously engaged in was already investigating what the female gaze is. They were able to come to the table with all these ideas in regard to the nudity, the cinematography, the camera movement. We really wanted to put the audience in the shoes of these women. We wanted to walk through the club and have the audience feel like they had big breasts and a curvaceous bottom. We wanted to see this world and experience it through their eyes.
I would ask, “What is your definition of the female gaze?” The men never really had an answer.
We even talked a lot about camera placement and framing. We did a lot of POV shots. We did a lot of shots that were super close up, so that we can feel like we’re actually inside the women’s brains. Those were very important aesthetic choices that helped us hone in on what it means to be a woman.
How do you know where to draw the line between sexual empowerment and self-exploitation, where the women’s sense of empowerment is influenced by external factors?
I think exploitation and liberation exist within this strip club space. That’s what makes it so complicated. We had to be honest about how these characters were participating in their own subjugation but show how they were able to empower themselves even though they were oftentimes placed in disempowering positions.
There’s a scene in Episode 2 where you have a dancer dancing butt naked on the lap of two business guys. She hears something [about a] very important business deal. Because they have forgotten about her, she has become an object. She uses her invisibility [to] empower herself. She’s like, “They don’t see me. I’m just a pair of breasts and a big booty. I’m going to listen to this secretive business deal, so that I can empower myself.”
The show is constantly subverting what we think power and disempowerment look like. These men think they’re in the driver’s seat. But eventually, this woman takes the key. The strip club is a very challenging space. But I really feel when audiences come to the show, they will see that nothing is black and white in this world. There are ways in which women can figure a way out and empower themselves and gain financial and social freedom. All kinds of freedoms can exist in this space if you open [your] eyes and see where those other possibilities are.
P-Valley airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.