Katori Hall on creating "P-Valley," demystifying sex work and the art of filming a pole dance

Salon talks to the "P-Valley" creator about centering unheralded essential worker perspectives during the pandemic

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published July 31, 2022 7:29PM (EDT)

P-Valley (Photo courtesy of STARZ)
P-Valley (Photo courtesy of STARZ)

Back when I was a child, television pushed firefighters, police officers, nurses and teachers as the kind of heroes we should aspire to be. And even though I'm sure there are honorable people in all of those professions, I know they are not all heroes. Throughout my life I have met nurses who hustled prescription pills on the block, racist firefighters, teachers who hated the students they served. And let's not even talk about the cops.

On the other side of the spectrum, I've had contact with dope dealers who clothed and fed the hungry, gangsters who funded tuition for poor kids and sex workers who did more to educate us than our teachers. The concept of profession not equaling hero has taken a long time for television to grasp. Katori Hall, creator of the hit Starz series "P-Valley," is doing everything in her power to change that and to redefine our ideas of who can be a hero.  

Hall is a Pulitzer Prize and Olivier Award-winning playwright who is best known outside of the theater world for her Starz series "P-Valley," a drama centered around a colorful cast of characters, directly connected to or loosely affiliated with a strip club called The Pynk, located in the fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi. Strippers, along with sex workers in general, are almost never centered as the hero, and often fall victim to some of the worst stereotypes imaginable. In "P-Valley," Hall runs into these stereotypes head on, challenges them, celebrates them and dismantles them, while ultimately introducing us to new forms of heroism and educating viewers on realities many judge but cannot understand because they don't have the proximity needed to have a real opinion.

Recently, I sat down with Hall for an episode of "Salon Talks" in which she gave me a beautiful education on the creation "P-Valley" and a deep dive into some of the themes highlighted this season, including the ways oppressed people are dealing with the with pandemic, parenthood and reproductive rights. 

Watch our conversation or read the transcript to hear more about the future of "P-Valley" and the Broadway debut of Hall's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Hot Wing King." 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on the success of this show. You covered so many conversations that we need to have in a brave way in season two down at the Pynk. How you feeling?

You know what? We feeling a little frisky. We were like, OK. When we sat down in 2020 at the end, obviously everybody was surviving during the damn pandemic. And we just decided that we were going to lean into what everybody was going through and just tell this very specific story that had to be so universal of our little strip club that could also surviving the pandemic. And so we felt real bold and brave, because we were like, "We don't know if we're going to die tomorrow, so we might as well put our foot up in it."

"We don't know if we're going to die tomorrow, so we might as well put our foot up in it."

I love how you guys handled the pandemic. I thought of "P-Valley" because I'm in Baltimore, and the mayor had shut down the strip clubs during the pandemic and left them closed for an extended amount of time. All of the dancers were out in front of City Hall with signs. There's a guy named Shorty and he had his mask down, and [the mayor] went viral for saying, "Hey Shorty, pull your mask up." But the guy's actual name was Shorty. So all of the dancers were out in front of City Hall with signs saying, "Shorty, open the clubs up." That made me think about "P-Valley." Can you talk about Black labor during the pandemic? What did that look like and how did you capture it in season two?

Well, at the start of the pandemic, I was actually in New York. And so for me to see that bus drivers and people just having to go to work still, when the whole world was able to kind of stay inside, you saw Black and brown people being on the front lines beyond just being medical workers. They were the people who were delivering your groceries. They were the people who kept the city economies rocking and rolling. And so, for us to center this Black female perspective, in the show, the fact is, we have to do what we have to do to stack our paper. There's no staying at home for the guy who has to do the Amazon delivery or the woman who has to strip to pay the light bill and put food on the table. And so to see this Southern strip club kind of break out of lockdown — and the women, all Black women, doing what they have to do — to me, it was this metaphor for so many different types of frontline workers, which oftentimes were Black and brown folks.

Entertainment is essential. We all sitting in front of our TVs watching it. Entertainment is essential.

Let me tell you, people were like, "Where's the show? Where's season two? Where's season two? Because I'm bored, I'm bored, I'm bored." TV and just all types of entertainment really, really got people through. I think people didn't even realize how much we rely on entertainment to help us decompress, process things. And so it was actually something that we would talk about at work. The world actually needs us, even though some people may deem us non-essential. It is very essential to bring joy to people's lives, especially during dark times.

Was television always in the cards for you? Was that always the plan, or did you kind of just stumble across it?

I must say that I knew that I always was going to be a storyteller. I thought that I was going to be a novelist for a while. I started out as a journalist. I definitely knew I was just going to write.

The theater was the place where I really felt, "Oh my gosh, I've kind of found the medium that I need to be in." Because I love the community of theater. I love the spectacle and the feeling of church that theater brings. But what was so funny, the reason why I even got into TV is that I found out that my play "Pussy Valley" was actually not as good of a play as it was a TV show. I was like, "Oh my God, there's too much going on. So I need to shift that into a different format." And so that's when I ended up going out to LA in 2015, pitching it around, and lo and behold, boom, it happened that I got a chance to develop it with Starz.

Why did you create [the setting] Chucalissa? What does Chucalissa mean to you?

"Three Southern towns went into this pot of gumbo, and I stirred it up and then out came Chucalissa."

Chucalissa means so many things. I could have plucked a Mississippi town and set our show there. But I am of the mind that you have to use fiction in order to tell the truth. And so I wanted Chucalissa to stand in for a lot of different worlds. I wanted it to stand in for Memphis. I wanted it to stand in for Tunica, Mississippi, which is where there was a casino boom and bust cycle. I wanted it to stand for Jackson, Mississippi. These three Southern towns went into this pot of gumbo, and I stirred it up and then out came Chucalissa. Chucalissa is actually a real Native American village that we grew up going to on a field trip. It's this Choctaw word that means abandoned house. And I really wanted to look at this fictionalized town that I could literally do anything inside.

It was like this sandbox that I created for myself. And even the slanguage of the show — which is this amazing mix of accent and dialect and old slang and new slang — it all is marinated together. And this world that no one has ever been to before, but literally everyone has been to before, springs forth. And the people in Chucalissa are quite diverse. You have your Uncle Cliffords, you have your Mercedes, you have your Corbins, but it is definitely centered in that Black Southern experience. And that's what I wanted Chucalissa to stand for and represent.

That's what I get. Working on television in Baltimore and working on television shows about Baltimore is, people would literally will stop me in a bar and be like, "Hey, mother**ker, I like what you did, but if you didn't get it right, we was going to be on your ass." And my only response is like, act like I didn't get it right. It's that kind of small, big town, and everybody knows everybody and everybody owns everything. So if you don't got the twos and the do's right, they would try to put they foot up your ass.

They coming for you, right? We get a little bit of that. There are people be like from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and they be like, "We don't sound like that." And I was like, well, the sound is actually a Mississippi sound. It's a fusion of dialects. And like I said, different types of slang that is even from the '90s, we have some slang up in there mixed together.

To see two different types of people in the same communities speak in two different ways in their own idiolects, to me, that's very interesting,

But that's what I feel like. I feel like I'm in a Southern town. So I get that feel. So I mean, I feel some D.C., I feel some New Orleans. I feel some Memphis. I feel some Baltimore. And I think that's why the show resonates with so many people. Another thing I connect with, that I think a lot of your viewers connect with, and I know you can speak to this at a higher level, is Mercedes in her arc, right? I feel like we kind of spilled over from season one in her journey of breaking those generational curses. She didn't want to be who her mom was. She didn't want to be a person who was seen as less than, or a person who was unethical, or a person who didn't really get a chance to stand up. Can you talk about her journey a little bit?

She's so many people's favorite character. I always felt that Mercedes, she was our everywoman. And the fact that she was trying to slay the Goliath of respectability politics, not only in her family but also in the world, really, really, I think resonates with so many different women, particularly in this industry who... Particularly in a Christian world, right? Where she's grown up in the South, everything is socially and religiously conservative. And yet she is taking off her clothes for money — but she finds power in it, she finds financial liberation, she finds sexual freedom in that.

And so her particular journey, I would say, is probably the most aspirational, because I feel like everybody can relate to someone who is trying to get out of something. Who's trying move into a different space. Who is saving up money and trying to achieve their dream. And I really, really love how the audiences just really, really show up for her and to speak to this idea of this cycle. She started, we meet her, she's this super she-ro flying around, up on the pole. She's Wonder Woman. And then we see her become very vulnerable when her mom steps in, who is like the most evil mom ever.

The worst mom in television history. She's terrible.

She's serial killer level, right?

"She actually creates space for her daughter ... to have a choice and agency over her own body in ways that her own mother did not allow and support."

We were able to delve into toxic mother-daughter relationships in ways that I don't think I've ever really seen before on television. And [Mercedes] had this daughter, Terricka, when she was 15 years old and her mother, her own mother, is the woman who forced her to not only have Terricka as a 15-year-old girl, but then give the child up, relinquish custody to the father and not really be in the child's life. She was forced twice to go through some mental anguish. And when she gets an opportunity to be in her daughter's life and try to get her daughter back, she's really trying not to be the mother that her own mother was to her.

She actually creates space for her daughter to have conversations with her and to have a choice and agency over her own body in ways that her own mother did not allow and support. So I really feel as though in our past episode, unfortunately, Terricka ends up getting pregnant at 14. And so, boom, she's staring at a version of herself. It's like the past is reliving itself, and I'm not going to allow that repetition to happen. I'm going to hold space for choice in my daughter's life.

It's heavy, but it's so necessary because when we think about toxic relationships, a lot of times we think about romance and we don't really think about parent-to-child and what does that look like. But you make it very easy because like I said, this may be the worst mom in television history.

But what's so cool, I think you will begin to like her eventually.

Another story line that I think is sparking a whole lot of conversations is Keyshawn's. And for me, there's a power in the way she suffers in silence with the purpose of protecting her family. At the core, I feel like everything she does is for her children, for her family, and she's going through hell. Is there something else or something that you wanted the user to take away in dealing with the conversation around domestic violence?

I just wanted people to understand how difficult it is to leave. I had the great privilege to work with women going through abuse. When I was living in New York City, I used to work in the hospitals as an emotional first responder for rape victims and DV victims. And it was such an eye-opening experience, the psychology and the amount of just time and preparation that it does take to leave. Everyone gets into these relationships for so many different reasons. People stay for so many different reasons. Oftentimes, it is for children. Oftentimes, it's for economic reasons. It's just a very complicated, knotty issue. And I think the character of Keyshawn, while I think watching her go through what she's going through often frustrates the audience. Oftentimes they're like, "Why he ain't dead yet, Katori? If Derrick ain't dead by the next episode, I'm coming for you." I'm like, why are you choosing violence? We're teaching you not to choose violence, and yet you're choosing violence.

You know the fellas be home like, "How he get her anyway?"

They got to watch episode five.

I know, I know, I know. We're not going to spoil it for the people who didn't see the show, but there's a beautiful Keyshawn origin story that gives you some insight into the dynamic of their relationship.

And so there's that fact it takes a woman, on average, seven times to leave an abusive relationship. And we really want people to sit in that struggle with her and see her go through every option, every tactic, to see how a woman in that position survives on a day to day basis. And obviously during the pandemic, DV cases, we don't even know what the percentage, the rise, is because a lot of women weren't able to even go and report things because they were literally in jail, in lockdown, with their abusers. We'll probably begin to know those stories as the world continues to get back up on its feet, but we definitely wanted to reflect a sad reality for a lot of different women and some men.

"One of our major goals this season was to get up on the pole more and make the audience feel like they were in the bodies of the dancers."

We need to have these conversations and you're definitely pushing those conversations forward. I also feel like this season, you guys changed the way you shot some of the pole scenes, because they're coming through like Matrix. They look next level. And I think it enhances the art and it helps people understand the art of what it takes to be a dancer.

Absolutely. One of our major goals this season was to get up on the pole more and make the audience feel like they were in the bodies of the dancers. We was going through that budget. I was like, "Wait a minute, I need this [equipment] for two days instead of one day, baby. I need the A7S camera." We were making the list of things that would achieve that goal. And I'm glad that you notice us because it costs some money to do that.

Because it is art. We're getting into a space where people are becoming more comfortable — I don't even want to say with nontraditional art, because it's not a new profession, but we're going through this this era of awakening where people are starting to accept people who don't think like them, who don't move like them, who don't work how they want to work. And I think all of these things are really important in moving those conversations forward.

Absolutely. And I always say that "P-Valley" came out at a time when Cardi B, right after she had really, really popped, and then JLo had just done "Hustlers." And I remember she was on a pole at the Super Bowl. So there's this kind of consciousness of pole dancing seeping into the mainstream. And I think we are a part of opening that door for regular old Americans.

P-Valley challenges the idea of family, sexuality and identity in a very interesting way. I was telling my wife, in preparation for this, I was like, "Yo, I've never, ever, ever seen a character like Uncle Clifford in my life." How do you pitch Uncle Clifford to a network?

You don't pitch Uncle Clifford to the network.

You just let Uncle Clifford show up.

You show Uncle Clifford doing that work. I think Uncle Clifford is hard to describe. And one of the greatest blessings of my life is that Nico Annan, who plays Uncle Clifford, has literally been on the journey with me since the first page. I remember I invited him to my little apartment in Hell's Kitchen.

I had a group of people to come over and we read the first five pages of the script. And that's when I knew, I was like, "Oh my gosh, we're onto something here." Uncle Clifford is a fusion of my real Uncle Clifford, my mama and my daddy.

And so I've used these three kind of living ancestors to create this being who is very feminine and masculine in equal measure. And I'm just, like I said, so blessed that Nico has been on that journey with me from the beginning, because he has taken my inspiration, met all three of them, has been able to take from them, put his own self and then obviously used his imagination to do what I think is, quite frankly, one of the most transformative performances on television. What Nico does with Uncle Clifford is just, it's chef's kiss.

In a way, Uncle Clifford is what Lil Murda wants to be. But because of his industry, he can't fully explore who he wants to be. However, I also feel like these industries are changing. But Lil Murda is not Lil Nas X. Lil Murda is not making poppy, feel-good music. There's a trap element and a street element to his character, to his look, to his dress. In the real world, outside of television, outside of the realities that we create and dream up, is there a space for artists like Lil Murda to fully embrace who he is? Are we getting there?

I think that would be a really good season three story. I agree with you. A young man who presents in that way: hyper-masculine. Not just masculine, hyper-masculine.

Can he roll up to the Grammys with Uncle Clifford on his arm? I don't know. And that to me is an amazing conflict to explore.

The beauty of your show is you created these realities and they do pair and you can fit them in with what is actually happening in culture. So it would definitely be something to explore.

There are so many different protagonists and hero journeys inside of "P-Valley." Do you get a lot of pushback about the hero stories, or do you feel like a lot of your fan bases, or people, or new fans are identifying with the characters and learning to ride with them?

I think everyone is riding with them. The cool thing about the show is that you can find a version of yourself in one of the characters that we have. I do think that sometimes people are like, "Oh my God, there's so much going on. There's too much going on." And we're always like, "No, no, just hold on. Everything is going to come together. Be patient." Because at the end of the day, this group of people, this ensemble, they're a tight-knit family and it's going to be well worth the journey as people see them on their individual journeys, but also as a collective when they come back to the Pynk.

Do you feel like the show is changing the conversation around sex work?

Yes, absolutely. I think there's a veil over sex work. There's a shroud like it's done in secret. And I think people are beginning to see that there are different lanes in sex work and there's a lot of overlap. You can be stripping one night and then engage in some prostitution the next night. There's some women who only strip, because that's something that they would never do. There's some women who do dominatrix work. There's some women who do submission work. It's just such a diverse world and I think "P-Valley" has definitely lifted the veil on a world that's been shrouded in a lot of secrecy and, quite frankly, a lot of shame.

There's somebody out there who gets paid to laugh at jokes. Like, you pay her and she just pulls up and just laughs and you're throwing all your BS jokes.

That's sex work.

And then she, she leaves home mentally in pain because your jokes are so bad. You have to tip or you're an asshole.

The transactions. It's all different types of transactions.

So many of us love "P-Valley," so thank you for that. But everyone wants to know what's next for you?

What's next for me? I need a nap. I have been going so hard. Like I said, we got into the room late 2020, and I literally haven't had a day off since then just because we were grinding. We had to deal with shutdowns. We survived two variants. Oh my goodness. It's just been a crazy rollercoaster ride. So I need to take my nap first. And after that I'm going to be making my directorial debut as a theater director at the Alliance Theater of my Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Hot Wing King" in January of 2023. So I'm looking forward to that as well.

"P-Valley" airs Sunday evenings on Starz.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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