Katori Hall’s P-Valley: “Delta Noir” and Strip Club Culture 

There is a moment in the pilot episode of P-Valley that defines the television series’ worldview. Mercedes, the headlining stripper at the Pynk, a gritty shake joint in the Dirty South, puts on a spectacular show that culminates in her climbing the pole all the way to the top, where she seems to stand upside down on the ceiling for an impossibly long moment. At first, the music throbs as the clientele scream and throw money. But as Mercedes ascends toward the heavens, the sounds of the club fade away, and we are left with only her labored breathing and grunting, and the squeak of flesh on the pole. From the crowd on the ground, she looks graceful and athletic—we are privy to the dancer's physical struggle. P-Valley is not concerned with surfaces. It’s here to tell the interior stories of the real women who work in clubs like this all over America.

The show is the brainchild of Katori Hall, a Memphis writer who first explored this territory in her successful stage play Pussy Valley. “Strip club culture is very common down South,” she says. “And what people, I think, are often surprised by, is that women actually go to the clubs as customers.”

After taking a pole-dancing class for fitness and discovering how excruciatingly athletic it was, Hall became obsessed. She spent six years traveling around the country interviewing strippers and patrons as she developed the play. “I never looked at them as these down-on-their-luck women. What I saw were women who were claiming a space of liberation for themselves,” Hall says. “I went to their homes. I met their family members. I really got to understand them, truly from the inside out. What people need to realize is that these women have struggles and desires and dreams just like any other person. They’re human beings who are deserving of respect and love, and I feel like their story deserves to be told.”

It was during the theatrical run of the play, which debuted at the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis, that Hall realized she had a TV show. “I think people expect this world to be very black and white. … You can be a victim one second and a perpetrator the next. The power dynamic that exists within the club is constantly shape-shifting. To me, it stands for America. It’s a metaphor. You come into that space, and wherever you are sitting, it changes your position on the socioeconomic ladder.”

After years of development and shopping around Hollywood, Starz green-lit the series, and Hall became a first-time showrunner. “Now, that is one of the highest learning curves ever,” she says. “To transform from a theater writer into a TV writer and, quite frankly, a showrunner, it’s pretty insane. I learned so much about myself. I have to learn how to be way more collaborative. I have to bring in different voices.”

Hall’s writers’ room was mostly women and included one former dancer. “We had all these people thrown into the pot. And we mixed it up and mixed it up, and hopefully created this amazing gumbo of story and culture and character.”
click to enlarge Nicco Annan as Uncle Clifford
  • Nicco Annan as Uncle Clifford
Hall oversaw the casting of the huge ensemble, which includes Nicco Annan as Uncle Clifford, the non-binary owner of the club who transcends the clashing male and female energies of the dancers and fans. “She is a therapist , an educator, a nurturer, and a protector to that world — and also to the men who work underneath her. I love the relationship she has with the very masculine men who work at the club.”

For the role of Mercedes, Pynk’s star dancer who rules the roost with an iron fist, Hall cast Memphian Brandee Evans, a graduate of the University of Memphis’ acclaimed dance squad. The former dance coach at Germantown and Southwind high schools left Memphis in 2009 after a series of personal tragedies. She gave birth to a stillborn baby, and her husband was being deployed overseas in the military. “I felt like I had just lost everything,” she says, so she made a rash decision to take out a title loan on her car so she could move to Los Angeles and dance for a summer. “Someone saw me in a dance class, and I ended up writing my resignation letter to the school board in the back of a tour bus.”

Evans worked for the next decade in L.A., dancing and doing commercial work and bit parts in TV and films. She got a message from producer Patrik Ian Polk on Valentine’s Day 2018 saying he needed a Black girl who could act and dance for a show set in the South. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, my friend Danielle can do it.’ And then I stopped and I was like, ‘Brandee, what about you?’”
click to enlarge Brandee Evans as Mercedes
  • Brandee Evans as Mercedes
She had little experience on the pole, but her extensive dance background and athleticism helped her quickly catch up. She had a friend in Memphis make her a wig for the audition. Hall says she nailed it. “Let me tell you, when Brandee walked through that door and she started saying those words, I felt like Mercedes had been pulled and plucked from my mind, and God had crafted her in Brandee’s body. It sent chills down everyone’s spine when we saw her audition. It was just so beautiful, how she was able to bring this level of vulnerability to a character who I think, at face value, people assume doesn’t have any feelings, or is just mean for no reason.”

Evans says her entry point to the character was the fact that Mercedes was a “preacher’s kid, and so am I. … Mercedes is a complex boss at the Pynk. She’s ready to retire, and she’s a daughter of a God-fearing, loyal woman, very similar to me. In that sense, she can be misunderstood, but when you get to know her, you learn that she’s that ride-or-die friend everyone desires to have.”

P-Valley was filmed in the Atlanta area, but its undefined Southern setting looks and sounds like the Mid-South. Hall has referred to the story’s tone as “Delta Noir” — a cutthroat world where the characters are exploited and exploit others in turn. One minute, Uncle Clifford is fleecing the rubes who come into his club seeking more than the strippers can give them. The next morning, he’s putting on a suit and begging his creditors’ indulgence. Hall says it’s an especially good time to be creating a show with an almost entirely Black cast. “I think, as a content creator of color who focuses on Black stories and the Black perspective, I feel as though I’m doing my part in crafting tales that show us as complicated beings who want love. I think these stories create an opportunity for empathy. And that’s been the problem: People have dehumanized us.”

Ever since she started talking to strippers a decade ago, it has been the women of P-Valley who have Hall’s heart. “They are choosing if it’s going to be exploitative, or if it’s going to be liberating — and these women are choosing liberation.”

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