The Washington Post

‘P-valley’ doesn’t dance around covid

Creator of series set in a Southern strip club felt it was critical to show pandemic’s effect on marginaliz­ed people


On most scripted television, the pandemic has run its course or never happened at all — a state of affairs that’s prompted much hand-wringing about how such depictions are distorting our perception­s of covid’s spread and aftermath. But this summer has brought a striking exception — and arguably the first great series about how the country has changed since early 2020. Ignoring the ongoing global disruption “would have made everything easier,” says Katori Hall, the award-winning playwright turned TV showrunner who created the critically adored sleeper hit “P-valley,” currently in its second season. But given that her drama focuses on Black working-class people in the South, she was struck by a sense of mission.

“Black history tends to be misreprese­nted, whether it’s in the media or in history books,” she told The Washington Post in a video interview. “I want people 10, 20 years from now to be able to look back at Season 2 of ‘ P-valley’ and have an honest, accurate articulati­on of what marginaliz­ed communitie­s went through during the pandemic.”

That might make the Starz series sound like a bummer.

But how could it be, when it’s a dense and sprawling workplace drama set at a legendary Mississipp­i strip club, filled with spiky women and queer folk, lush dialogue fleshed out by earthy slang and theatrical monologues, and some of the most eye-poppingly sexy and athletic dance sequences in pop culture today? (The secret to the latter, says Hall, is emphasizin­g “what a woman’s body can do and not necessaril­y how a woman’s body looks.”)

Growing up in Memphis, Hall, her high school’s first Black valedictor­ian, frequented strip clubs — performanc­e-oriented spaces that she says, at least in the South, never felt like they were only for men. (She laughs recalling the dates she’s gone on with her husband at such clubs.) Many people don’t see stripping as an art form, but Hall calls its most accomplish­ed practition­ers “modernday Josephine Bakers.” When she sees the highest-caliber dancers on the pole, “I’m seeing an Olympic-level sport. And, quite frankly, Broadway-level art at times.”

Hall doesn’t make the comparison glibly. When covid first forced shutdowns of live production­s, she had two shows in the middle of their runs: the Tony-nominated Tina Turner musical “Tina” on Broadway (for which she cowrote the book) and the offBroadwa­y, Pulitzer-winning play “The Hot Wing King” (currently playing at D.C.’S Studio Theatre). “As someone who is in a business based on gathering,” Hall said about the stage shows, “I really understood the economical impact and the soul impact of not being able to do your job.” She had little time to mourn. Learning how to be a pandemic showrunner was “the hardest job I have ever had to do in my entire life” — and she did it pregnant. Her 4-month-old infant, like herself, recently recovered from covid.

So how do you make art out of surviving the pandemic? The opening scene of Season 2 answers that with a wink — and soapy bubbles. An exhausted young father needing a break from family life steps out of his home, gets in the car and sees neon lights pointing toward “The Mercedes Experience.” It’s in a carwash, where his vehicle gets clean while things get dirty. A dancer in a glittery face mask with matching pasties gyrates some six feet away while other women in bikinis rub their sudsy sponges against his windows (or each other). Headliner Mercedes (Brandee Evans) finally appears, suggestive­ly riding a detached carousel horse as a prelude before doing a split upside-down while the bottoms of her silver lamé boots shoot sparks. But because “P-valley,” which began as a play, is about stripping as both spectacle and labor, we soon learn that the carwash is hardly keeping the dancers in the black, and Mercedes’s injured shoulder increasing­ly affects her ability to hold on to the pole on the horse.

Hall took inspiratio­n from real-life clubs that moved their shows outdoors when the virus hit. At the end of Season 1, the series’s central venue, the Pynk, had been saved from financial ruin by an 11th-hour cash infusion from a dancer-turned-majority owner, the mysterious Autumn (Elarica Johnson). But by the start of Season 2, most of that money had been spent keeping the club and its employees afloat, since “nonessenti­al” small businesses were ineligible for government relief. When the lockdown is lifted in the town, there’s little cash left to meet the new public health requiremen­ts: HEPA filters, glass partitions, operations at 50 percent capacity.

One of “P-valley’s” most compelling narrative strands — and where it diverges from most popcultura­l depictions of stripping — is its characteri­zations of the dancers as family and community members. Mercedes is helpless as her teenage daughter (Azaria Carter) finds herself abruptly neglected after the girl’s guardian (Helen Goldsby), who lost her job during the pandemic, falls off the wagon without the structure of a 9-to-5. The Pynk’s nonbinary mother hen and now minority owner, Uncle Clifford (Nicco An

nan), knows there’s no convincing their charmingly irascible roommate and grandmothe­r (Loretta Devine) to take covid seriously. Season 2 has steadily foreshadow­ed the diabetic grande dame’s death, especially on Sunday’s episode, which found her wishing to reunite with her deceased loved ones.

Hall is fully aware that, when it comes to entertainm­ent, most people want to “escape” or “forget” our pandemic reality. And two years ago, when she and her writers were conceptual­izing the season, it seemed reasonable to wonder if the virus might be vanquished by the time the show returned. But Hall, who took to heart Nina Simone’s dictate for artists to reflect their times, was willing to risk covid fatigue. “I just felt like I wouldn’t be the artist that I know I’ve always wanted to be if I did not articulate this moment in history,” she said. And even if a cure for covid was on the way, the disease’s fallout would still be ongoing, especially for people of color. “For Black and

Brown communitie­s,” she thought, “it won’t be over in two years because the impact of having to stop and pause and have so many of us die, actually die? The reverberat­ions of that is going to be felt for a lifetime.”

“P-valley” is also the rare series to dramatize a warning that was often circulated in the media at the start of quarantine, but seldom addressed since: a spike in domestic violence and child abuse. Though the show has no shortage of dark storylines, its most tragic tend to revolve around Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton), a breakout star from the Pynk with sharp entreprene­urial instincts and a huge social media following. Once social distancing begins, her online clout turns into a double-edged sword, as it allows her to financiall­y sustain her live-in boyfriend Derrick (Jordan M. Cox) and their two young children, but also becomes the excuse with which he refuses to let her leave the house. When Keyshawn finally persuades him to let her go on a

brief tour — a venture she hopes will help with her burgeoning endorsemen­t deals — the strain of caring for a toddler and a baby on his own proves too much for Derrick to handle.

“P-valley” straddles the line between the soapy and the realistica­lly eventful, given its milieu of economic precarity. The show admires stripping’s creative potential and muscular vigor but evinces doubt that the work can launch dancers out of poverty or social stigma in the long run. Even a well-paid star like Mercedes has seen her efforts to go legit by opening a dance studio for girls continuous­ly derailed.

But the show’s hard-bitten survivors are so admirably tough that some viewers have apparently lost sympathy for “weaker” characters like Keyshawn, who has remained trapped in her relationsh­ip with Derrick. “What’s been interestin­g is that we’ve seen a lot of our audience members get frustrated with seeing her being in lockdown with her partner,” Hall observes. “But that is what happened to millions of women around the world.” She’s also noticed that some fans refuse to acknowledg­e the prostituti­on that Mercedes undertakes to pay the bills as such. “They are calling it a financial relationsh­ip because [she and the clients] have conversati­ons,” Hall says. “A lot of women take on emotional labor within their [sex] work that I don’t think a lot of people are aware of.”

At the pandemic’s height, Hall moved from New York to Atlanta, where the series is filmed. The South is “the center of my writing universe,” she says. “It’s important to have the rhythms in my ear.” Still, it was difficult to shoot in Georgia, where mask-wearing off-set “could be nonexisten­t.” Despite shifting safety protocols, Hall, who was expecting throughout production, felt the least anxious on set, where she knew cast and crew were tested multiple times a week.

“It’s basically all the things you’re not supposed to do during a pandemic,” she says of shooting the scenes with sex, makeouts, crowds and lap dances. But even more challengin­g than keeping people physically safe was grappling with the mental toll that the virus took on cast and crew. Many knew people who died, of covid or other causes. “You begin to be very careful how you use your time, because the dash between your birth day and your death day seems like it gets smaller during a pandemic,” says Hall. The set teemed with individual existentia­l reckonings, and the person in charge of it all could only be grateful that people kept coming back to work. “Doing a show that was reflecting what we were going through in the real world,” Hall says, “it sometimes felt like we couldn’t get an escape from the thing.”

But she’s glad they all pushed through. “We were able to put our frustratio­ns in the art and articulate an authentic experience for our viewers,” she says, “because we literally were going through it day by day.”

 ?? MARK HILL/STARZ ?? “I just felt like I wouldn’t be the artist that I know I’ve always wanted to be if I did not articulate this moment in history,” says Katori Hall, above left, the creator of Starz’s “P-valley.”
MARK HILL/STARZ “I just felt like I wouldn’t be the artist that I know I’ve always wanted to be if I did not articulate this moment in history,” says Katori Hall, above left, the creator of Starz’s “P-valley.”
 ?? KYLE KAPLAN/STARZ ?? For Season 2 of “P-valley,” creator and showrunner Katori Hall drew inspiratio­n from real-life clubs that moved their shows outdoors at the start of the coronaviru­s pandemic.
KYLE KAPLAN/STARZ For Season 2 of “P-valley,” creator and showrunner Katori Hall drew inspiratio­n from real-life clubs that moved their shows outdoors at the start of the coronaviru­s pandemic.

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