This small-town drama started making viewers ‘uncomfortable.’ Its creator is thrilled
There’s something about “P-Valley” that draws you in, more than likely its central trifecta: the promise of sex, the hope of love and the certainty of death.
But there’s even more that keeps you there, connective tissue that’s compelling enough to make you care about the characters who inhabit the series’ fictional town of Chucalissa, Miss.
Make that Memphissippi. Creator and showrunner Katori Hall describes the setting as a combination of the places she grew up that can’t readily be found on TV, a mix of city and country that conjures authentic Black Southernness.
“I always say that if Chucalissa was a city, it would be this fusion of Memphis, Tunica, Miss., and Jackson, Miss., all kind of put in a pot and boiled and marinated together,” she said. “Chucalissa is reflecting the hood, the rural communities, the different lingos, the musicality of Southern Black speech. It’s all represented in this fictional world that is quite real and is based off of everything that I have experienced in my life. That’s why it feels so tactile.”
Follow those roads, and you end up with “P-Valley,” based on Hall’s play of (almost) the same name and featuring both political — a mayor’s race pitting a preacher, an interloper and a son of the land against each other — and pole-itical intrigue — the lives of exotic dancers and those in their orbit.
In Season 1, everything revolved around the strip club the Pynk, run by Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan). Cliff has many rules — a favorite is Rule No. 88, which says “just ‘cause a bitch good at keeping the peace don’t mean she ain’t good at waging war” — and administers them with a lace-gloved fist. Good thing, because there is still a fight afoot in Season 2 to keep the club — now co-owned by former dancer Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson) — out of the hands of developers who want to bring a casino to the impoverished town.
Season 2 is broader: It’s about the people in all their lovely, messy glory.
Katori Hall talks turning her play into Starz’ “P-Valley,” showcasing strippers as athletes and artists, and demanding action from American theaters.
“I always tell people the show is not called ‘The Pynk,’ the show is called ‘P-Valley.’ What I have found to be the most ambitious thing is getting inside of our characters more and becoming more intimate with them,” said Hall, who won a 2021 Pulitzer Prize for her play “The Hot Wing King.” “The audience, because we’re getting behind the masks, literally and figuratively, of all of our characters, they’re beginning to see themselves more … and it’s been making people really uncomfortable, which is a joy.”
And no one is seeing more than Uncle Clifford, who is in everybody’s business (and knee-deep in his own). That includes a torrid love affair and an inspiring sense of self.
“I first asked Katori, ‘Where did this idea come from, of this character?’ And [Hall] said, ‘I’m just interested in seeing what a person could be like if they accept their full self, all of their femininity and all of their masculinity,’” said Annan.
The actor clung to that note.
“This season, it’s like the Olympics for me with Uncle Clifford; it’s an emotional roller coaster,” Annan said. “And there were things that, as an artist, I very rarely get an opportunity to do. And especially being a Black man, and being a Black gay man and being a Black gay man of a certain size and then being all of that playing this nonbinary person in such an inclusive space. Normally when you dip your toe in those pools, it’s so minimal, and this is just a vast open galaxy. I just feel like I’m every man.”
Katori Hall reaches for the divine — and Broadway
Saturated in color, drenched in melodrama, Uncle Clifford may have described the series’ evolving trajectory best when she said: “This place is full of haints and unsung melodies, child.”
Bouncer Diamond (Tyler Lepley) is revealed as a roots worker, something foreshadowed in Season 1. (“Being Black is such a magical experience,” Hall said.) The oft-bruised and battered Keyshawn’s (Shannon Thornton) origin story is told as a fractured fairy tale. Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson) and OG dancer Mercedes (Brandee Evans) make money moves. And COVID-19 makes all types of businesses stop and start.
It sounds like a lot, but anyone who has spent time in a town like Chucalissa knows that stories are always intertwined. Everyone always seems to be going somewhere, even when they’re staying put.
“All the different marginalized communities that the show represents really are just amplified, this season and in the work,” Annan said.
In fact, everything is “amplified” this season: more money, more choices, more of the aforementioned trifecta. The show is rich in symbolism for those who care to look. And nothing is more emblematic of that than the fashion choices this season.
Hall and Annan joined The Times to break down Season 2’s style, some of it lovingly called “corona couture.”
Scene: Uncle Clifford goes to the after-funeral repast to pick up some chitlins for her grandmother.
Hall: We had decided that lime green was gonna be the color that people wore to the funeral for [Mayor] Tydell Ruffin. And so it’s like fitting in to stand out, which is just [Clifford’s] MO anyway. I love that we were able to get this suit that is actually inspired by this Ugandan traditional wear called the gomesi. It has these kind of pointed shoulder pads. We try to pull inspirations from the culture, from the motherland, and I was really happy that we were able to bake that into this particular outfit. There’s a kind of monogram of UC that we’ve layered on the fabric of the suit. Uncle Clifford would have her own Gucci. The mask that she’s wearing is this green plastic mask — her COVID couture, or her corona couture.
Annan: How do you then step into that and make it citified? For me, a lot of times the fashion of Uncle Clifford is how she travels, how she can go beyond the borders of Chucalissa, because she has so many things that are holding her there. This is her own little castle and tower that she has. That’s how it comes to life for me.
Lady in red
Scene: Autumn Night/Hailey Savage swans into (read: crashes) a party of high rollers in order to goose a bid for the Pynk.
Hall: One of our inspirations for that particular moment was “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. This woman is basically one of the greatest finessers that we’ll probably ever meet in the entire series. She is there to take. Just like Prince Prospero in that story did not know that there was someone coming in to take his life. And so it’s almost like Andre is the prince, and she’s coming in to take over in a very kind of metaphorical way. We talked a lot about how to make that kind of literary allusion work onscreen.
Scene: Friends and lovers Big Teak and Lil Murda spend the day together. Their time ends when the former kills himself in the driver’s seat of a car gifted to him by the ascending rapper.
Hall: That was one of those lucky, unintentional moments … just to rely on your costume designer. It’s beautiful when you can have amazing collaborators like that, who bring these possibilities and allow for you to deepen the work that’s on the page.
Scene: Uncle Clifford has money on her mind while figuring things out at and for the Pynk.
Annan: Money is always on her mind. It’s cultural, for sure. But I think most people know something about when you don’t have, you still aspire for, right? That was a look that was in the closet. Each of the characters, we build a closet. When the designers talk to me, I tell them what’s going on in my mind as the character. So I knew my grandmother had ‘rona. I was stressed over the club, and I also was having to deal with Hailey. I didn’t have time for something huge and elaborate. Give me a pair of leggings, my boots and just put this swing top on.
Hall: When I saw the money, I was just like, ‘This is perfect,’ particularly because it’s an aspirational moment. Like she wants money, but she also wants the Pynk. So being kind of caught between a rock and a hard place, your castle or the root of all evil.
When: Sunday, 9 p.m.
Streaming: Starz, anytime
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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