The cast of ‘P-Valley’ on the new season and going to the darker side of the Dirty South
The dancers of The Pynk face a pandemic, money trouble and more
Down in the valley/Where the girls get naked/If you throwin’ bands/Then you know she gon’ shake it/1, 2 break ’em/3, 4 rake ’em — Jucee Fruit, “Down in the Valley”
Those haunting lyrics by Jucee Froot introduced the world to one of the dirtiest parts of the Dirty South when the television series P-Valley premiered on Starz in the summer of 2020. The song set the stage for a story about the dancers and patrons at The Pynk, a strip club in the fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi.
In the first season, viewers met the main dancers at The Pynk: Mercedes (Brandee Evans), a sharp-tongued single mother and preacher’s daughter who is trying to leave the stripper lifestyle behind and become a dance team coach; Miss Mississippi (Shannon Thornton), who is struggling in an abusive interracial marriage; and Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson), who blows into town with more secrets than a diary.
Keeping these “heffas” in check is Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), The Pynk’s stiletto-stomping proprietor. Circling in their orbit are the men, who are sometimes protectors and sometimes predators, including the club’s bouncer, Diamond (Tyler Lepley); manager, Big L (Morocco Omari); and Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), an up-and-coming rapper whose performances with Miss Mississippi and clandestine relationship with Uncle Clifford change The Pynk forever.
The series is based on the play Pussy Valley by Katori Hall, which premiered in 2015 in Minneapolis. In P-Valley, Hall depicts Black people who aren’t code-switching. They are society’s castoffs and the ones people rely on to make them feel better about their own lives. They are also unapologetically sexy and sexual.
When the series premiered, the world was on fire due to a pandemic, a contentious presidential election and the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd by police. In Season Two, art imitates life and a pandemic has forced Uncle Clifford and the girls to get creative about the meaning of essential business. The Pynk is still at risk for closing, and quarantine has heightened the women’s already contentious interpersonal relationships. All of this is compounded by the killings of unarmed Black men, which wreak havoc on Lil Murda and Miss Mississippi’s 12-city Dirty Dozen tour.
Andscape spoke separately with cast members Annan, Evans, Nicholson and Omari about what the show has meant to them.
The excerpts below have been edited for length and clarity:
What attracted you to your role? What has it taught you about yourself?
J. Alphonse Nicholson: Katori Hall. I knew her from theater. She saw me do a show called Paradise Blue at Signature Theatre in New York and she told me she’d let me know about P-Valley auditions. Doing this show has given me an opportunity to be an ally for a community that needs it.
Morocco Omari: I’m from Chicago and we have all these great theaters. I was fortunate enough to work at all the major theaters where I really wanted to work. P-Valley is like a play. It’s an ensemble piece and the dialogue is dense and rich. No two characters are the same. No two relationships are the same. She explores every type of relationship you can explore. That’s a master at work.
Brandee Evans: Playing Mercedes has taught me to stay even more true to myself and that I am a lot stronger mentally and physically than I thought.
Nicco Annan: There are things I encountered during the stage production [at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minnesota] where I had to advocate for the character and myself. I’m a Black gay man who uses he/him pronouns portraying a character who is nonbinary and uses she/her pronouns. During rehearsals, the director, Nataki Garrett, said they were going to release me from rehearsal to get my nails done. I asked, ‘Do you all have someone coming here to make nails?’ They said, ‘No, we’re going to send you to the nail shop to get a full set of acrylics.’ I remember sitting down with Nataki and the costume designer and I said I don’t know this area. I’m on public transit coming to and from the theater. If you want me to wear a full set of nails, you need to have transportation for me or provide me with a car. I had to explain the true day-to-day dangers that exist for nonbinary people. I was put in a position thankfully, so that put me in touch with a lot of Uncle Clifford’s journey.
I imagine to play this role, you have to free yourself from any conflict you may have with your body.
Annan: Part of being physically naked started with the emotional strip down. For the physical nakedness, I would do Bikram yoga to feel what my body is doing. I am also a dancer and choreographer, so I would have my unitards and I would strip down at home and see how my body moves. Being a full-figured person, you can easily experience a lot of shame, but that term ‘thick thighs save lives’ is true.
Evans: Absolutely! You can’t play a role on P-Valley without accepting yourself in totality. Before this show, I had insecurities about my body that now I frankly do not care about. This show has been what I would call body therapy.
Nicholson: We all have our boundaries, but you have to be comfortable with who you are working on a show like P-Valley. You have to be comfortable with the intimacy scenes and understanding that the intimacy coordinators are going to make sure everyone is safe and comfortable. Being intimate on set is hard for anyone, but you learn to accept your body. You may not be the most cut in the room or have a six-pack, but you learn to cherish it.
How have your own perceptions of exotic dancers and adult entertainers changed as a result of working on this show?
Nicholson: That changed immensely. Growing up in the South, going to strip clubs was definitely a part of the culture. These women are pure athletes. You go in and you’re getting entertained, but you don’t know how much goes into it. I think there’s an empowerment in that, especially for Black women, seeing them up on those poles. It feels like Mother Nature is in this small space Katori has created. It allows you to see women in a different light.
Omari: I’ve always had an open mind, so it hasn’t changed much. I don’t sit back and judge. Somebody’s going to strip clubs and subscribing to OnlyFans. We need to be honest about what we like and dislike. … Sometimes our socioeconomic backgrounds don’t allow us the same start as some other people in life, so we have to figure out some other way to pay bills, feed children and be successful without going to jail.
Evans: This show has opened up my mind so much. I have always known to not judge a book by its cover. However, it’s much more to it than that. These characters are real people with real stories. This show has allowed me to learn about other lifestyles and life experiences that I would not have otherwise known.
The Pynk isn’t just a place for a good time. It’s a safe haven for the women. However, it’s at risk of closing because of a developer. We see this happening in Black communities across the South. What do we lose when we lose places like The Pynk?
Omari: You lose an institution. My paternal side owned a soul food restaurant called Edna’s on the west side of Chicago. Everyone from politicians to gangsters would come in there. When she died, that was it. That neighborhood lost something. … When Macy’s bought Marshall Field’s, it felt like someone snatched your heart out. My grandmother worked in the kitchen there. … The Pynk is a getaway. We’re trying to save The Pynk.
Annan: Ownership is so important because when you own a place, you can define your reality. The Pynk is more than just a building. It’s about legacy, not only what you come from, but also what you leave behind. When I go back to Detroit, yes, I want to see my neighborhood grow. But when it’s been eradicated … when there’s no reflection of who we are, we run the risk of forgetting.
What is Season Two bringing fans?
Nicholson: A lot more nuance and dark comedy. You can expect a lot more dope music from Lil Murda and more complicated relationship problems from all the characters. It’s a lot deeper this season.
Evans: I am extremely proud of Katori for bringing national relevance to areas that do not get much attention. I am grateful that she is shining a bright light on underrepresented communities and stories.
Omari: Big L is a survivor, and when you’re a felon, you have to survive in the ways you can. I try to find the humanity and fun in him. This season, I’m having fun with him.
Annan: One of the beautiful things I love about how the writers have constructed this season is that there are so many regular things we get to highlight that the queer community experiences all the time with relationships and heartbreak. There’s a line in the show that says, ‘Fairy tales are like horror stories, just with happy endings.’ The hell we have been through the last few years — the transfixing of our hearts, the figuring out what we want to stand for, the facing of your own ‘ish’ in the mirror — it is not in vain. We all have the ability to rewrite our own destinies, no matter your race, size, gender or ethnicity.