Katori Hall talks "P-Valley": "Any narrative around the Black female experience is a political act"

Salon talks to the creator of Starz's "P-Valley" about what the female gaze reveals about stripping – and women

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 26, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

P-Valley (Starz)
P-Valley (Starz)

One of the defining moments of "P-Valley" features a tight shot on the body of Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton), a featured dancer at the Pynk, Chucalissa, Mississippi's finest strip club. Specifically, the scene opens with a close-up on her naked breast, the camera lingering just long enough to fool the viewer as to what purpose the view serves. But right at the point at which the lens verges on leering, an infant's head enters the frame and latches on to nurse.

This is one of the ways series creator Katori Hall acknowledges the reason why much the audience is tuning in to her Sunday night series. It's the same reason they go to places like Pynk. "You come into that space, you throwin' dollars at these women you just think of just as a pair of boobs and and a nice round booty," she said in a recent phone interview." And we're like, 'Well yes, these boobs still make money, but they also nourish children. They're not just for men's pleasure. They have another function.'"

"That scene to me exemplifies what it means to be a woman in this world, and a woman in the strip club world," she adds. "That's one of my favorite scenes in the entire season."

When Starz announced "P-Valley," a show about Black strippers in a fictional Mississippi Delta town, it's unlikely that many people predicted that such a story would not only center women but appeal to the female perspective by presenting every scene and every line from a woman's distinct viewpoint.

Hall knows precisely why many of the drama's viewers are tuning in. It's premium cable after all, not to mention in an era where most of that tier's softly salacious content has gone the way of the dodo. But in expanding upon the story initially told in her 2015 play "Pussy Valley," Hall's main goal is to turn the spotlight on these women and humanize them instead of letting them remain in the background, as so many other series do. On "The Sopranos" strippers were nameless, faceless candy; here, they're the stars and their customers are their mesmerized supplicants.

But Hall, who co-wrote "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical," always intended to strap the audience into the six-inch heels of Mercedes (Brandee Evans), Keyshawn, aka Miss Mississippi, Gidget (Skyler Joy) and mysterious newcomer Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson) and make us appreciate how daring and tough it is to walk in them. She got some sense of that by taking pole dancing classes as part of her research as she was writing the play – an essential physical experience, she says, to comprehending what a tough job this is. "I ended up mixing everything that I've ever wanted to say about being a Black woman and nailed it to this craft of a dancing, because it is hard work to strip. It is a craft," she said. "I feel like it is a craft to be a Black woman and walk in this world as well. And so I think merging just my own lived experiences with what I think is an extreme physical feat is what makes the show what it is."

In the conversation that follows, Hall elaborates on her meticulous construction of "P-Valley" to ensure its character as the women they represent and show in the best light, literally and figuratively, and weighs in on the thematic intersections between the world she's created for her Starz series and the story of the pop music icon she immortalized for Broadway audiences. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

A lot of people have remarked upon is how carefully crafted the point of the view is – the care that's taken with the lighting, the editing, how we see these women as character but also, the visual presentation. The care that goes into that is plain to see. I realized this is your first time as a showrunner and since you had carte blanche to realize your creative vision, was there a guiding principle you shared with your directors and the editors to ensure certain elements were foregrounded?

Absolutely. Because I'm a Black woman who has inherited all of these hypersexualized images about herself, I knew that I was stepping into a very tricky terrain and I was going to have to navigate it with precision and understanding. I had conversation upon conversation upon conversation about, how do we challenge those hypersexualized images? How do we subvert the expectations of this space? Like honestly, people are going to come to the show and they're interested in the breasts and the booty. That's what they came to see, that's what they're paying for. And so we had to figure out a way to make sure that beyond the skin, beyond the body parts, people understood the human being. So with every choice, and I mean absolutely every choice, when it came to how we were going to visually articulate the show, we made sure that we were placing the audience in the high heels of these women.

We talked about framing. When it came to the nudity we were like, okay, we have to be honest to the extent that breasts are going to be everywhere, but a shot is not just going to be about a woman's breasts. It's going to be about a woman's experience of being naked and showing her breasts. So for example in Episode 2, when you have Autumn Night doing her lap dance and she's eavesdropping on this conversation, we had literally shot it in a way that took in her whole body. But what ended up happening was that your eyes started going towards the body instead of understanding that she was going through a moment of being objectified. And so we re-shot that scene and we made sure that we were really close on her face so that we could see her eavesdropping, so that we could feel her curiosity.

It was choices like that I feel made us successful in attaining this show that I think vibrates with the female gaze. It was a second-by-second constant crafting of making sure that we weren't just looking at a woman's body. It wasn't about celebrating how a woman's body looks, it was about celebrating what a woman's body can do. We were adamant that we don't want to be participating in perpetuating these hypersexualized images of women, Black women specifically.

But I also love the mystery aspect of it too, with the obvious storyline with Mercedes and her mother and the  Autumn Night subplot, which must have been fun to write.

It was so, so fun, and it did not exist in the play form. I must admit there was a moment where we struggled in the writers' room as to how to make Autumn a character that felt like a mystery, but also knowable. Like she almost feels like an audience proxy. And so I wanted to make sure that she was intriguing, she was alluring, but we understood enough about her to have empathy for her. We understood that she was running away from something, but yet we didn't know from what exactly. It's was a disaster, but there's more to that disaster.

The style of the show, it has this noir, and we call it Delta noir, influence. Where we're taking those traditional principles and we're taking the mystery of that genre, and fusing it all together with this new approach to, you know, lighting Black folks and saturating the frame with color and the show having a sense of humor about itself.

It's mixing that all together to kind of do this refreshing take on old-school noir. But at the center of it, it's this mysterious woman that actually pulls the audience through the entire first season and into the space. I feel as though we see the world through her eyes. That mystery did not exist in the play version; she was a journalist walking around asking questions. Basically, it was almost like I was writing myself into play. But I knew that in the TV version I had to widen the world and also create a story engine that would draw people back to find out what the answer is. So I felt like that these mysterious elements really helped with that.

"P-Valley" portrays a version of sex work. And I think that a lot of people are coming to the realization – or hopefully people are coming to the realization – that it is work, it's work that's gone on for thousands of years and needs to be valued as such. Curiously I'd say like 20 years ago, one of the subsets of this would be burlesque. Burlesque performance was kind of looked down upon for much of the 20th century, but then it was popularized by figures like Dita Von Teese, who has several merchandise brand.

And its popularity also normalized the pin-up industry and boudoir photography, bringing us to the mainstreaming of stripping in the form of pole dancing. We even have pop stars such as Cardi B who speak openly about having worked as a stripper in the past, and news coverage of the racial discrimination in that industry.

What do you think that "P-Valley" being on TV right now kind of adds to the current conversation?

I actually feel as though with Black strippers, they haven't been embraced or respected. I feel like there has been this interesting appropriation of a craft that they have cultivated, particularly when it comes to the athleticism and the theatrical experience of stripping.

I've often talked about how just being in the South, being a Black woman in the South and going to these spaces seeing these women up there, they've been there for years. Decades, even. And to see this kind of way of accepting the craft without accepting the people who created the craft has been interesting, particularly in the mainstream. And so I feel as though what "P-Valley" does, is it really shines a light on the innovators, these women who worked at Magic City, who worked at King Adonis, who worked at Black Diamonds, who worked at Pure Passion and created all the pole tricks that now been kind of codified and disseminated by, I would say, mostly white pole dancers who have been able to kind of create a following on Instagram and have been able to create entire careers based off of the pole dance and craft itself.

At the end of the day, the show is about Black women who happen to be strippers. And I feel as though to center our show or any narrative around the Black female experience is an extreme political act. Because you know, not everyone exists at the intersection of race, class, and gender. These women do. And they may be especially vulnerable because of the fact they are participating in a kind of sex work. And so to be able to kind of look at the collision of identity within this space kind of shows how politicized everything is, whether you like it or not.

I just hope that the show really makes people understand that these women who have been dehumanized and who have been stigmatized, even, for the work that they do, that they are worthy women who are participating in a patriarchal system and doing what they have to do to survive. To me, it's all about humanizing them and that to me is a great political act. And unfortunately, historically we haven't been able to look at Black women in this space without feeling shame.

You know, oftentimes because I am a Black woman who writes, there's this kind of burden and responsibility that's placed on your shoulders of like, you have to put forth these aspirational images of Black women and Black men because of the huge history of the stereotypical images that we've kind of inherited.

And, you know, I, kind of find myself in a very conflicted space, because I do know these women exist and I do think that their stories are worthy of being told. And yes they are participating in the sex industry – but yet they do have something to say about patriarchy. They do have something to say about racism. And so just by telling their story, it would say it's adding to that conversation on a lot of different levels, whether it's political, social or economical, when it comes to what it means to be a Black woman in this world.

You're one of the writers on the Tina Turner musical. I'm wondering what the experience of bringing her life story to the stage, of researching her story, whether there were common threads between what you read about Tina as a woman of the South and these women, and how those may have manifested in "P- Valley."

I was definitely working on it at the same time, and they wrote each other into existence – meaning the theme of resilience and the theme of triumph over disaster, you know, is something that I think it resonates in both pieces. It just felt like I needed to be writing those things at the same time. And I would say that the music that I think pulses in Tina, and the fact that she only wrote one of her songs. But she always chose music that was a reflection of what she was going through. Whether it was about being a fool in love, uh, talking about being mad about love, this idea of being able to express pain through music, through an art form was something that I saw equally in the women in "P-Valley." Where you see Miss Mississippi, who similarly to Tina is in an abusive relationship. And it's this class, it's this art form that, you know, unfortunately is not as respected in the world that is an escape her. Like music was an escape for Tina, pole dancing is an escape for Miss Mississippi.

And so it was very interesting to be working on those two things at the very same time, because there is so much overlap. But at the end of the day both pieces, I think, are about a Black woman finding her rightful place amongst the stars and trying to ascend and climb out of an abyss, whether it is of society's making or self inflicted, of their own making. Um, but definitely, it was very easy to write both pieces at the same time because of what both pieces were trying to say about being a black woman in this world.

New episodes of "P-Valley" air Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Interview Katori Hall P-valley Sex Work Starz Strippers Tina Turner Tv