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Starz explores strip club life from a woman’s perspective in ‘P-Valley’

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Credit: Tina Rowden

Credit: Tina Rowden

Just the phrase “strip club” is freighted with presumptions and stereotypes, moral judgments and jokey references.

Creating a scripted TV drama focused on a strip club therefore presents a major challenge, especially if the goal is not pure lewdness but grounded authenticity.

Katori Hall, an award-winning playwright, grappled with these issues and came up with her first TV show, the new Starz drama “P-Valley.”  It’s focused on the characters at a Black strip club called The Pynk in a fictional Mississippi town Chucalissa. The first season, which features eight episodes, debuts Sunday, July 12 at 9 p.m.

Undoubtedly, this being pay cable, there’s nudity, curvaceous bodies and evocative pole dancing. But the women are not merely eye candy while the men conduct business like on “The Sopranos.” They are treated as human beings pursuing one of the few opportunities to make decent coin in a town where minimum wage is a likely alternative.

“We wanted this show to come from the female gaze,” said Hall, noting that every episode was directed by a woman. “We weren’t interested in the man’s voyeuristic perspective. We wanted to understand the experience of the women working in an industry so stigmatized.”

While the women are on the pole, the camera runs tight on their faces. One woman performs and the music disappears and all we hear are her grunts and groans and her focus on the Cirque du Soleil-level athleticism of what she’s doing. Sometimes, we see flashbacks and what she’s thinking about, which is seldom about the money being shoved in her G-string.

“We use cinematic techniques,” Hall said, “to drive home the point that this isn’t a show about being salacious or gratuitous. This is about humanizing the women, not objectifying them.”

Reviews for "P-Valley" have been almost universally positiveHank Stuever of The Washington Post says it "excels at both tawdry entertainment and meaningful moments of character study." James Poniewozik of The New York Times said the show "understands the dreams and challenges of its captivating characters the way an exotic dancer knows the physics of her own body." Aramide Tinubu of the AV Club calls it "an unapologetically Southern and Black story that puts women who are often shamed and pushed toward society's edges right back where they belong — center stage."

The show was largely shot at Tyler Perry Studios, but they were able to find outside locations that emulated a  Mississippi town on the outskirts of Atlanta.  Hall envisioned Chucalissa as if her hometown of Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi, had a baby.

There are three key figures in the first episode:

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Credit: Jessica Miglio

Credit: Jessica Miglio

- Mercedes (Brandee Evans) is Pynk’s matriarch, the veteran dancer, the star attraction, thirsting to leave the joint and start her own dance studio. “If she had grown up under different circumstances, she would have been a Alvin Ailey dancer,” Hall said. “Within a space that’s so exploitative, she was able carve out a showcase for her art form.”

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Credit: Jessica Miglio

Credit: Jessica Miglio

- Autumn (Elarica Johnson) is the newbie, escaping murky circumstances in Houston to carve out a new life with a new name and no shortage of PTSD. “She’s a nod to old-time noir,” Hall said. “The aesthetic is Delta noir. She’s mysterious, bathed in saturated colors. She’s a fish out of water but we learn quickly this fish can swim well.”

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Credit: Tina Rowden

Credit: Tina Rowden

- Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) is the commanding, no-nonsense non-binary owner of The Pynk who wears both finely groomed  facial hair and elaborate outfits. “She’s a blend of masculine and feminine energy,” said Annan.

At the same time, she’s a full-fledged human being, not a stereotypical Black gay person, Annan said. Uncle Clifford is not easy to pin down, conveying joy, pain, anger and sweetness, sometimes all in the same scene.

She keeps her bearings by creating a set of rules for the ladies, telling them to “let the stage be your steppingstone, not your tombstone.” In other words, the dancing is for a purpose and each woman needs to know what that is.

Her second rule: “Always know where the exits are. You never know when you may have to turn a window into a door.” She has to battle not just regular internal employee strife but corrupt politicians, bribe-friendly cops and demanding customers.

Annan is the one holdover from the original play and fully embodies the character from the moment she hits the screen. “The club is her home, a space of liberation,” Hall said. “It’s a place where she feels safe, where she doesn’t feel the discrimination she does outside those walls.”

Unfortunately, a big real estate deal for a new casino resort could threaten her club’s very existence. “It’s the classic David vs. Goliath story and Uncle Clifford is our David but with cultural and regional specificity,” Hall said.

Evans, who plays the celibate Mercedes and is a professional dancer and choreographer by trade, said the show subverted many of her conceptions of strippers.

She hopes women don’t dismiss the show outright given its basic premise and open their minds to the fact these are women with complicated back stories and motivations. And whatever fantasies the women sell to the men in the club, Hall doesn’t idealize the ladies. “We don’t hide stretch marks or cellulite,” Evans said. “As a woman, I love that. It shows we are beautiful in our own skin.”

The club, which Uncle Clifford inherited from her grandmother, is a character in and of itself. It used to be a juke joint and the set designers create an immediate run-down, nostalgic, lived-in feel. “You see the old juke joint sign in the office and posters of music acts that came through the club,” Hall said. “You even see an original jukebox.”

For Annan, the club’s atmosphere “made acting so much easier, so much more organic. It made the experience actually a little trippy. It felt like a real club. Off camera, we didn’t party a lot. We were already at the club at work!”

Uncle Clifford, at the start of the show, is in debt and struggling to pay the bills. It doesn’t help that in this particular small town, she can’t get a liquor license and the women have to remain partly clothed on stage.

“The South is such an interesting place,” Hall said. “There are churches on every corner yet on a Saturday night, people are all up in kinds of holes in the walls like this.”

In many ways, Hall views the show as a “love letter to the South and a reflection of my upbringing in all its dark and light. It’s very family-centric. The bad thing is we’re dealing with a heavy heritage, the heritage of slavery and the economic problems stemming from that history. We delve into the cracks and crevices of the new American south.”

The name of the show, by the way, is actually a shortened version of the 2015 play, a nickname for an area in Memphis. Hall said cable operators were resistant to that name so they shortened it. “It was a business decision,” she said. (For the sake of sensitivity, we also won’t spell out the P-word.)

Hall is still marveling over her first TV project and the difficulties of helming such a big ship.

“You have to be part visionary, part therapist, part general manager,” she said. “The learning curve is so high. There are no books, no classes to take. You learn on the fly. Luckily, I had a great team that taught me a lot about TV production. Thank God we all arrived in one piece.”

ON TV

“P-Valley,” 9 p.m. Sundays on Starz starting July 12, 2020

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