In 2009, award-winning playwright Katori Hall started research for her play Pussy Valley, which put a spotlight on the world of stripping. She stepped into the heels of these women, took pole dancing classes and even spent her 30th birthday in the locker room of the New York strip club Sin City Bronx. On the surface, Hall’s experiences to inform her play seem like a fun adventure, but in reality, it was a cultural study to inform a more in-depth story about these women, their experiences, personal narratives and the stigma that is often attached to their profession. The play deconstructs the stereotypes these women are often subject to and doesn’t just make it about hyper-sexualized pole dancing. We often forget that these women are people with stories and emotions — not just objects as they are often portrayed.
After the play made its debut at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis in 2015, there was room for more story beyond the stage — enter Starz. The TV adaptation now abbreviated to P-Valley (probably to avoid raised eyebrows from the sexually sensitive) debuts on July 12 on the premium cabler and features Nicco Annan reprising the role as strip club den mother Uncle Clifford from the play as well as actors Elarica Johnson, Brandee Evans, Shannon Thorton, Skyler Joy, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Harriett D. Foy, Tyler Lepley, Dan J. Johnson, and Parker Sawyers.
Set in the Mississippi Delta, P-Valley follows the ladies and the patrons of the titular southern strip club as we learn about their struggles and secrets. With the debut right around the corner, Hall is more than ready to expand the world she created in 2015 and put shine on an industry that is often maligned. That said, she wanted to bring as much authenticity as possible to a genre she refers to as “Delta Noir”.
“We actually had real dancers working on the show,” she told Deadline. “We had a core group of background dancers who were still dancing at their Atlanta strip clubs while they were working on the show. On set, they would come up to me and say, ‘Thank you. This is a reflection of my life, and I love that you’re not looking at my choices as a shameful thing.'”
She continued, “There’s no slut-shaming that’s going on. There’s just empathy and understanding. There’s just love. They were so appreciative of that approach to telling the story. My hope is that dancers who get an opportunity to see the show, and see the TV screen as a mirror and see that we got their struggles and dreams right. That we got them right as human beings.”
In addition to Pussy Valley, Hall has achieved acclaim on stage with the Broadway’s Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, as well as the critically acclaimed and Olivier Award-winning play The Mountaintop, which gives a fictionalized take on the last night of Martin Luther King’s life. P-Valley marks a new chapter in Hall’s career and she talked to Deadline about her journey in bringing her play to TV, the importance of the female gaze, how her advocacy informs her art and how the drama reflects the current zeitgeist of social change and tolerance.
DEADLINE: How was your transition from pivoting from stage to TV?
KATORI HALL: Nobody can teach you how to do it. There ain’t no class or many books for it (laughs). All the showrunners just say, “Well, the only way you can learn how to do this job is if you’re hired and you get the opportunity to do the job” — and it’s true. It’s so, so true.
The difference in creation, number one, is the biggest thing. I was okay with sitting in my room by myself and writing out characters and everything coming from my brain, but you shift to TV land and there’s a group of writers who are just as smart, if not smarter than you. They are more creative than you and to link arms and put all your brains together to figure out something has been life-changing for me. I never really got an opportunity to do that particular creative process very much so that’s the biggest transformation that happened.
DEADLINE: How did you adapt to the role of showrunner?
HALL: Not everyone gets an opportunity to showrun their first show and to be put in that position was just mind-blowing because you’re the custodian to the vision, but you’re the shepherd to all of these goals and you have to make sure that everyone is in alignment and moving forward to this bigger creative goal. You play therapist some days, you play negotiator on other days. It requires so much more of your personality because it’s not just about being a creative being. It’s like I’m a manager in a store, but it’s managing a business; it’s being in charge of millions of dollars.
I think TV showrunning is probably one of the hardest jobs in entertainment. They all have their challenges, but, with TV specifically, there are so many moving parts and it’s over a longer period of time, so your management skills have to be on fleek when you step into TV land but I always say that the thing that trained me up for the showrunner position was being a mother because you learn how to make life-or-death decisions on little-to-no sleep and that’s kind of like what it feels like being a showrunner. But everyone is my family — or my “framily” as I like to say. I really had a great team that I worked with.
DEADLINE: What was the process like in stretching a contained play into enough episodes to fill a whole season of TV?
HALL: It took a lot of prayer and a lot of mistakes, I’ll tell you that. (laughs) In terms of the play in itself, it was the culmination of six years of research, going to all these different clubs, talking to all these different women, and when I saw it on stage, I very quickly realized that there was too much to talk about. There were too many stories that were woven into the play version, so to be given that opportunity to stretch it out, it seemed inevitable just based off what ended up being produced on stage.
Obviously, you have to step back and take all of your inspirations and throw them against the wall because the characters that were in the play, a lot of them stayed for the TV version but we took a lot of liberties just because we had to figure out what the story engine was going to be beyond the two and a half hours [of the play].
To figure out a way to have an open-ended story where it was about these characters and seeing them transform week by week and, hopefully, season by season, was the key. Luckily, one of the greatest elements of the play is that it had amazing and strong characters that had legs for days — literally. We want to see how Uncle Clifford is able to keep the strip club in order. We want to see if Mercedes is really going to retire. We want to see how Mercedes deals with her Holy Roller parents. Those big questions actually were really well served in the TV format, but there were so many things that changed.
DEADLINE: Which character changed the most?
HALL: I would say the character of Autumn Night changed the most. I think initially she was a voyeuristic journalist. One iteration of her was an elementary school teacher. So, for the TV version, we wanted to embrace the genre of mystery and noir, so to have this woman coming into the space and allowing it to be more clandestine and for her to have this secret felt more entertaining and also provided a way for us to tease out the world — that thing of being drawn back to a particular character and a particular world. I would say she kind of acts as the audience proxy — and she acted in that way in the play.
The show is not just about the strip club. That’s the biggest thing that I think we aim for. With the play version, we’re just inside those four walls, but with this expansive landscape to explore of the Delta. We were able to go into other overlapping worlds like the world of politics in the Dirty South and the world of the church.
DEADLINE: The show spotlights two things that are often stigmatized in TV and film: the deep South and stripping. How did you navigate the story so that these key touchstones aren’t turned into tropes?
HALL: Yeah, strip clubs are a huge hot button topic in our society. We stigmatize women who are strippers. We shame them. So for me, this show has always been a way to humanize a group of women who have been ignored. There’s just a lot of misrepresentation out in the world about them. The fact that the story is told from their perspective and we see the world through their eyes really embraces the [storytelling] that centers on the female gaze. We’ve seen the male gaze of this type of show. I think about The Sopranos. Tony’s always talking to some gangster rolling up in his club and the women are in the back. They’re just bodies. We don’t see their faces. We just see their breasts moving in soft focus in the background. Strippers have always been the backdrop to a man’s story versus it being about them.
I wanted to provide people who have been historically marginalized with a space for them to honestly and authentically talk about their own stories. Having a story about these women told by a woman and helmed by female directors, for me, was the way that we were really going to honor the fact that these women should be respected. Every woman makes certain choices and we shouldn’t shame a very specific group within the larger group of women just because they’re doing something that we may not be in alignment with. This whole thing of moral superiority is just something that I don’t subscribe to as an artist, so that empathy and trying to strive for cultural understanding was always the space that I was coming out of.
In terms of the South, I’m a Southern belle and I hate it when it’s portrayed in such a stereotypical way or how it is just portrayed in black and white. People don’t understand that there are certain pockets of the South that are extremely diverse. I always use the phrase the New South; the fact that even in a place like Memphis, Tennessee, you see a Mexican population, you see an Asian population, you see these cross-pollinations that are happening. Whereas people always say “It’s just black folks, and it’s just white folks.”
Beyond that, it is a conservative state, it is a state where there’s a church on every corner and a liquor store on every corner, and there’s this constant battle between the secular and the sanctified; that’s in constant battle. I really want to showcase just how complicated the South is and how there are parts of the South that are progressive. There are people who are queer in the South. We tend to think that everybody is still in the closet down there.
To really honor this complexity of this New South was always the goal for me because, growing up, I saw all of these misrepresentations of this place that I grew up loving — and hating it simultaneously. The South has this unfortunate history of racism. Everywhere in America has that history of racism that we’re trying to unpack and figuring out how to step into a better future, but the South that I grew up in is filled with Holy Rollers and pastors that are pimps, and women that’ll shoot you. These are really interesting people. I feel it’s time to honor them and give them an opportunity to shine in a new and complicated light.
DEADLINE: That said, what did you use as your mood board to create the P-Valley world?
HALL: I coined the term “Delta Noir” to describe the aesthetic that I was aiming for.
DEADLINE: That’s actually a perfect way to describe the mood.
HALL: Traditionally, you’d watch an old noir movie and it’s centered around a white male protagonist. There’s the mood and there’s crime. Visually, it’s about the shadows and the juxtaposition between light and dark. I wanted to embrace that old-timey, black and white visual approach to telling the story. I was inspired by it but I wanted to add my own little quirks So, basically, the show embraces the shadows and those elements of noir style, but we also include color. We also investigate shooting darker-skinned people in dark spaces. In traditional noir, there are no black people, and if there are people of color, they tend to be a stereotype or it’s a very peripheral character. For us, our women are the detectives. Uncle Clifford herself is a detective in the world. The men are not at the center. To take a usually male aesthetic and feminize it was truly the goal.
We used of a lot of sharp, saturated color. It comes through not only in the cinematography but it also comes through in the costuming and the makeup. There’s just a brightness and I think that’s the nod to the Delta.
The fact that the people don bright colors and fight to exist in the midst of this broken land with this horrible history. The way they walk in the world is a visual articulation of that, in the Delta, everyone has a sense of humor and there’s a way that we laugh to keep from crying. These ideas of using these different inspiration points and honoring this world that has been so misrepresented in the media was the reason why we landed on “Delta Noir” as our umbrella term when it came to the visuals of the piece.
DEADLINE: How do you think the show speaks to the landscape when it comes to women, the queer community, people of color, and more specifically, women of color?
HALL: I’ve always been committed to writing about Black folk in all shapes, sizes, and identities. I’m grateful that that has always been my mission statement. There are so many content creators who are focused on Black lives and it’s just now that the world’s ears are open to us. We are walking in these streets and we are saying “Black Lives Matter” and I want to add to that: Black stories matter too.
We have been such a dehumanized population in America and the beautiful thing about stories is that it creates a space for people to create empathy and cultural understanding for groups that have been dehumanized and marginalized. It is such a powerful tool for social change. It’s crazy because storytelling is just a bunch of lies: it’s using the power of pretend to tell the truth about groups of people and about the world. I am so honored that, even though this time is tough and challenging, we are participating.
This story, this show, is participating in amplifying Black lives and showing Black people as loving, powerful, strong, complicated. It’s a way to continue creating space in our society that has dehumanized our population for so long. I think it’s always the right time to be talking about queer folks, Black folks, women, specifically Black women. The world is ready to hear us roar. It’s a moment of reckoning. There is a societal transformation. We are a witness to a historical moment right now and I’m just really proud that our show, with its articulation of how exploitation and liberation dance cheek to cheek in this particular space, is really providing something new and something that is needed to the TV landscape right now.
DEADLINE: How does your own advocacy inform your art?
HALL: I think they walk hand in hand. I feel as though everybody can’t be out in the streets protesting and everybody can’t donate. You can’t be running in every lane because you’ll just tire yourself out. You have to figure out what you can do as a human being. For me, it’s the gift of telling stories and crafting characters that feel so real and human to the point where you’re like, “I want to hang out with a stripper every day.” That is a way to advocate for community. That is a way to amplify social issues and possible social solutions. While I try to do all of those things— try to be in every lane that I possibly can — you have to recognize where your power is and embrace that.
For me, it’s really been about concentrating on the stories of the marginalized and even focusing on those who are marginalized within marginalized communities. With P-Valley, we focus on the lives of women who strip and showing that there is a vulnerability there that we need to look at, but there’s also a complexity of them being empowered in this space. To be able to enter this world and to ask those questions about how free are we as women and how much more work do we have to do to achieve equality with men — I love that we are asking those questions at a time where people are actually willing to look for answers.