‘P-Valley’ creator Katori Hall takes us through the stories of the Pynk
The show’s secret sauce, transitioning from theater to TV and what’s in store for season two
The strippers of Chucalissa, Mississippi, better not lay down their platform heels just yet.
After fighting off threats from a crooked mayor, a casino development company called Promised Land and foreclosure due to mountains of refinancing debt, the Pynk is safe — for now — thanks to one hell of an angel investor. All was revealed Sunday night during the season one finale of P-Valley, the southern gothic melodrama created by playwright Katori Hall.
P-Valley, which is adapted from Hall’s play Pussy Valley, spent years in development before becoming Starz’s biggest hit of the summer.
The action revolves around a storied strip club in the Mississippi Delta, complete with a healthy dose of Southern rump-shaking. But P-Valley’s appeal is more than skin deep, featuring detailed, efficient storytelling and a breakout performance by Nicco Annan, who plays Uncle Clifford, the Pynk’s proprietor and headmistress. P-Valley captures the poetry of the lives of the women who work at the Pynk, with dialogue that moves along with as much rhythm as the bars of its resident rap star, Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson).
I spoke with Hall via Zoom ahead of the finale about P-Valley’s secret sauce, and what she has in store for season two.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What’s it like to know that everyone is talking about your show?
A lot of people have asked me, ‘Did you know it was going to be this successful?’ And I must say, I did have an inkling. I had always joked with the executives like, ‘Oh, millions of people are going to watch this,’ and they’d be like, ‘Really?’ We’re going deep on a lot of different issues. People tend to underestimate work that centers Black narratives, specifically Black female narratives, and I’m just so happy and proud that we have showed up and showed out. And people are talking about it in such a way that it just feels so satisfying, because they’re seeing all of the depth and the nuance and the complication, and they’re also seeing themselves, even though they’re not Lil Murda, they’re not Uncle Clifford, they’re not Mercedes, but they are truly seeing their own struggles inside of theirs.
Tell me how you adapted a closed story — a play — into a series for television.
The biggest challenge for me, stepping from theater into the TV space, was figuring out what the story engine was going to be. Autumn Night ended up being our way into figuring out how to lay these breadcrumbs. Embracing noir and noir principles and aesthetics and mystery, but also the fact that we had created this other character which was this Promised Land casino, which was the Goliath that was coming over to battle the Pynk. Uncle Clifford exists as this David-like character.
The character studies are just as important as these plot containers that we built. Everything was a deliberate choice to make sure that it’s feeding into this bigger story of survival. That is the biggest theme of our first season: fight. Everyone is fighting against something, against themselves, against these bigger entities, whether it’s corporate powers, or homophobia in the hip-hop community, or yo’ mama!
Everybody has this deeper fight, and it’s just beautiful to see how people have been responding to the craft of it. Oftentimes, they be like, ‘It’s a Black show, and it’s just about being Black, and that’s what we get to talk about.’
What was it like working with co-executive producer Patrik-Ian Polk, the creator of Noah’s Arc, who gives us this gorgeous, tender scene in episode seven between Uncle Clifford and Lil Murda?
I was developing P-Valley for over four years. You send out your SOS to the industry, like, ‘I need writers,’ and I wanted writers of color. I wanted writers that were queer. And the beautiful thing about Patrik was that he also was from Mississippi. We had our first conversation and it just felt like he was kin. I think as a man who identifies as a gay Black man, he was invested in making sure that we visually articulated the love story between Lil Murda and Uncle Clifford with love and tenderness, but truth.
So that penultimate episode, it just got to be on point. We always envisioned the last two episodes of this season as a movie. If you see them together, it just feels like everything flows. Patrik will go there. He will push boundaries and make people feel uncomfortable, but uncomfortable in a way that is so humanistic. We’ve been with these characters over the course of those previous six episodes, and everything is paying off. We’re seeing Lil Murda and Uncle Clifford falling deeply in love. We’re seeing the fact that Mercedes and Autumn Night are becoming true-blue friends. Mercedes never really had a friend at the club, and now she has this human who feels like her equal, and that she can confide in.
Can you explain what the intimacy coordinator provided on the production?
They’re not directing the scene, the director is directing. But they are offering space and holding space for the directors and the actors to make decisions that, A) tell the story in regards to the intimacy of the show, but also is done in a professional way so that actors are comfortable. So they have running rehearsals before the actual shoot. Our protocol was that the day before, we would make sure that the actors rehearsed fully clothed. And so the intimacy coordinator would be there along with the director and also one of the producers.
We treated it as dance choreography. You’re going to hold this kiss for two seconds. Then you’re going to turn, and then you’re going to hold it for four seconds. And then you’re going to back out, look into her eyes and then we’re going to cut.
You don’t want to put an actor in a situation where they are aroused — because it’s all science, right? If you rub up against something, something might get aroused. So the intimacy coordinator is really about protecting the actor and making sure that their hearts are safe and that they’re provided with the things that they need to make sure that they can be as professional as they possibly can.
For example, oftentimes if there is a scene that is requiring some rubbing, there will be padding placed between the genitalia. And also they’ll use — we call it modesty wear — that covers their private parts. So it’s just about making sure that everyone is physically safe, but also emotionally safe.
Was that always the plan?
When we first started out, we did not have an intimacy coordinator, but eventually there was a turning point where some episodes demanded that. Because a lap dance is intimacy. Yes, people are clothed for the most part. There may be floss, but your butt cheeks is on the man’s lap. I just really wanted to make sure everybody was protected and felt comfortable, even the people who were day-players. That’s the nature of a Southern strip club: the tatas is out.
It made us a better production to have hired an intimacy coordinator. I was thankful that we shifted to that policy, because it could have went left real quick because of the sheer volume of nudity that is required.
So much of this show is about prodding the audience to think differently about bodies and the way people use them and what that tells us about who holds power.
We all wear masks. I think for Andre, as a character, with him I’ve been so interested in delving into this idea of respectability politics, and this idea that if you go to a certain school, you speak a certain way, you have all the things that make you Obama-adjacent, that you’re not supposed to have these complicated sexual desires. And Andre is a man who is still trying to figure out his worth in a society that constantly dehumanizes Black men no matter where you are on the social ladder and the socioeconomic ladder. So it’s interesting to see that moment where sex is so raw and real, even for the most boujee of us.
When did you know Nicco was your Uncle Clifford?
In 2009 when I started writing the play. The beautiful story about me and Nicco is that he was in New York, and I had this playwriting fellowship, and so I had this amazing apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. And I would invite Black artists over on Monday nights. I called it Black Mondays. And it was a homage to the fact that on a Monday night, the theater’s black.
I wanted to focus on Black artists. And so Dominique [Morisseau] came through, I would present work. It was a bunch of us who were just beginning our theater careers coming together. I was like, ‘Oh, I got this play called Pussy Valley and I need somebody who can play this character called Uncle Clifford.’ Dominique was the one who recommended Nicco to me because they are both from Detroit. So I had a reading, and I remember it was the first full five pages.
He came in, chile, and tore them pages up! So from the beginning, I knew that this character of Uncle Clifford was possible because there was an actor in New York who could embody her. So I embarked on a six-year-long process, and he ended up originating the role. He continued to develop it with me. I think he did basically every reading and every workshop that I was forced to do. Theater’s crazy.
Was it a smooth transition from theater to TV?
It took me four years to turn it into the TV show. And even though I knew that there was an actor out there who could embody the role, the network brass still needed proof. And I was being auditioned as well. It was like, ‘You’re a first-time showrunner, so everyone has to go through a process.’ So he actually had to audition for a role that was tailor-made for him. But he was like, ‘I get it, I understand. This is our business. And we’ll go through this process.’
But he came in, and the role was his. I think Nicco’s portrayal of Uncle Clifford during the audition process was one of the main reasons we got greenlit, because I think the folks who were a little hesitant, they were just like, ‘We don’t know this world. We don’t know very many actors who can play this and do it justice and do a level of authenticity that is required.’ And when they saw Nicco, they were like, ‘Oh, we good. Oh, we real good!’
A second season has been greenlit. How do you make this show in a pandemic?
I feel as though I am embracing this opportunity to talk about this virus, this pandemic, in a way that is very relatable. Because I think about how live performance, in general, has been shuttered. And strip clubs have been hit really hard. The fact that they can’t get no [Paycheck Protection Program] loan, because there’s a moral superiority complex that the government is having in regards to who can get a loan and who can’t.
I think it’s a remarkable opportunity to talk about how this pandemic has detrimentally and disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities — through a story of a strip club. Because to me, the Pynk is America. It is this meta-forum, all these different people coming in and out and all these different transactions, these financial transactions, these emotional transactions, soul transactions, and it’s about these people who exist at the intersection of race, class and gender. I’m like, ‘This is the perfect way to tell a story that is fierce and still funny.’
Because Black folks, we know. We’ve been laughing through centuries of oppression. So to be able to be entertaining in a moment that feels so heavy, for me I’m like, ‘Let’s go.’ Creatively, I’m not scared at all. But the biggest obstacle is, how do you tell a story that’s set during a pandemic? I do not want anyone to be put in a situation where their health is on the line. It’s so unfair. We’re just playing pretend.