p-valley starz strip club dancers smiling
Photo via STARZ
Entertainment

'P-Valley' Is About More Than a Strip Club—It's About Survival

VICE spoke to the cast of the Starz series about using a Mississippi strip club as a Trojan horse to discuss race, gender, and class.
KC
Queens, United States
September 9, 2020, 4:00pm

On P-Valley, what happens in the champagne room doesn't stay in the champagne room. In the second episode of the Starz drama's first season, Hailey—an exotic dancer at a Southern strip club called The Pynk—saunters over to Andre, the nephew of the town's mayor, wearing nothing but thigh-high boots. During a lap dance, they bear their literal and emotional scars to each other: Hailey, otherwise known by her customers as Autumn Night, shows the mark of a Caesarean section for the toddler whose death she's grieving; Andre reveals that he was born with his heart outside of his chest. Both wounds are traces of their lives before this moment, amplifying their stories not as workers or patrons exchanging money for services, but as two vulnerable people sharing the emotional wreckage of their pasts.

Humanizing the lives of sex workers is showrunner Katori Hall's entire premise for the new series, which is based on the play that the Memphis-born playwright and actress produced in 2015. With P-Valley, Hall uses the strip club setting as a device for telling the stories of the dancers often relegated to the background. In zeroing in on the lives of exotic dancers, it accomplishes what Hustlers—last year's film adaptation of a New York magazine story about a group of New York City dancers who drugged and scammed the men of Wall Street—failed to do: expose how the power dynamics of race, gender, and class create a world where people are working to survive by any means necessary.

"When I pitched P-Valley, I remember not even being able to get inside of the room at certain places," Hall told VICE. "People were very hesitant to even consider a show centered around exotic dancers set in a Mississippi strip club. I think Starz quickly realized that this isn't a show about [tits and ass]. It's a show about human beings."

In the pilot, we find Hailey, one of the show's main characters, fleeing from a disastrous flood and an abusive husband in Houston. She finds a suitcase with a few things she needs to start a new life—designer clothes, a new ID—and signs up for Amateur Night at The Pynk, where we meet fellow dancers Gidget, Keyshawn, and Mercedes. P-Valley is a vehicle for not just Hailey's story, but the stories of all the club's lead dancers.

Although the series is written by women and centers women, the men of Chucalissa—the fictional city set in the Mississippi Delta where The Pynk resides—are equally as important. Lil Murda, an aspiring rapper who uses the strip club as a testing ground for his music, is everyone's favorite patron. Murda's breakthrough single "Fallin'" is undoubtedly the song of the summer (in both the show and in real life), and Murda is aware that if the girls in The Pynk can't dance to his music, no one will.

But not every patron uses the club as strategically as Murda does. For some regulars—like Corbin Kyle, whose family descended from cotton plantation owners—The Pynk is a place of solace and escape, the only place where he feels that he can truly be himself. Corbin is the black sheep of his family—both figuratively and literally. Born of an affair between his father and the Kyle family's Black maid, Corbin is proof of his father's infidelity. And while his half-brothers Wyatt and Wayne—the two other heirs to the family fortune—want to sell the Kyle land to a company with plans to build a resort and casino, Corbin is determined to lease the land instead. Although he's white-passing, Corbin sees his share of the land as a way to establish his own legacy as a Black man with ownership, as well as a means to finally tap into the benefits of the Kyle name that he's never been able to access. The matter is further complicated because if Wyatt and Wayne's casino deal goes through, they have their sights set on the very plot of land that is home to The Pynk—an area which Black landowners and entrepreneurs have been historically relegated.

The planned deal to bring a new casino to Chucalissa could close the club's doors for good. But it isn't until episode three that Hailey asks the $6-million-dollar (the amount that the Kyle brothers stand to make) question: "What does that do for the people who live here?"

The Pynk is a portal to another world, which is why Corbin doesn't mind shelling out his inheritance in its private rooms. The cost of admission to The Pynk transcends money; its currency is the opposite of privilege, and the people who work there have created a system that rejects the necessity of being born white, straight, male, let alone all three.

For Uncle Clifford, the non-binary owner of The Pynk with a personality as flamboyant as the club's neon purple lights, the club is not just a financial lifeline, but an important piece of family history. Growing up in Chucalissa, Uncle Clifford was treated as an outsider by locals for carrying her feminine disposition in the frame of a Black man. But now, she's affectionately known as "Mayor of The Pynk." (Dancers at The Pynk use the pronouns “she/her” for Uncle Clifford, but the show’s antagonists frequently misgender her.) She is as vulnerable as she is strong, a surrogate mother to the dancers who call The Pynk home.

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Uncle Clifford. Image courtesy of Starz

Like the Kyle family, she has a long history with this land, though her family's lack of generational wealth has made it difficult to keep it in the family. Before it became The Pynk, the building was once home to Ernestine's Juke Joint, named for and owned by her grandmother, played by Loretta Divine; before that, it was a cotton mill that belonged to Ernestine's parents.

"There is such a thing as inherited debt as well as generational wealth," said Nicco Annan, who plays Uncle Clifford. The Pynk's waterfront location makes it prime real estate for the new casino, but Chucalissa's Black-owned establishments are valued significantly less than property owned by white residents. "The Jenkins are getting half of what the Trumps are getting, if you know what I'm saying," Annan said, reciting one of Clifford's memorable lines.

When Uncle Clifford isn't trying to level the playing field in Chucalissa, she's one-half of television's new favorite will-they-or-won't-they couple. Lil Murda, a hypermasculine, grill-wearing aspiring rapper with a tough exterior who has a penchant for making it rain in the club, is not interested in any of the dancers; his heart is set on Uncle Clifford, for whom he even wrote "Fallin." Because of stigma, their romance is limited to romps behind locked office doors and outings in the woods at night, and when Murda wants to make their relationship public, Clifford's answer is simple, yet heartbreaking: "Where you gon' take me? I advise you take me nowhere."

In 2017, a study from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that when it comes to violence against the LGBTQ community, Black people make up 60 percent of homicides. "The reality is no matter how sweet Uncle Clifford is, there is a huge amount of homophobia and violence against the LGBTQ community in the South, North, and worldwide," said Annan.

Hall says creating a fictional city gave her the freedom to express everything she wanted to say about being Black and Southern. According to her, Chucalissa is what happens if Memphis, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi had a baby. "The people there are fast talkers, they're hustlers—but they're also deeply connected to their roots," said Hall.

The story of Chucalissa—a plantation-turned-factory town that fell upon hard times—mirrors the history of many Black communities in the South. "Because of globalization, so many of the factory jobs were decimated," said Hall, whose parents had themselves experienced unemployment as a result of these same forces. "So you have this population of people who were undereducated but also didn't have access to jobs that could kick them over to the middle class."

This reality is just one way the show stresses the need for Chucalissans to survive despite the odds. "We do not shy away from the fact that people are living in this impoverished region and trying to live their life by hook or by crook. This is a show about survivors. Women who are survivors. Men who are survivors. Queer folk who are survivors."

The theme of survival shows its face in The Pynk in a multitude of ways, but especially in its depiction of motherhood. The story of Mercedes, who has been dancing at The Pynk for seven years, and her mother Patrice, a devout Christian, offers a multigenerational story of the complicated nature of being a mother. When Patrice judges Mercedes for being a dancer, Mercedes reminds her of their traumatic past, which is alluded to but never explained. Now that Mercedes is in charge of her own destiny, she is trying to break the generational curse by saving up $20,000 to open a gym for her dance troupe and establish a steady income to regain custody of her own daughter. And while Patrice is a so-called saved woman with aspirations of being the lead pastor in the pulpit, she'll stop at nothing, including robbing her own daughter and marring Mercedes' celebrity-like status around Chucalissa, to make that happen.

"[Patrice] thought she was a waste, and that broke Mercedes's heart," said actor Brandee Evans, who calls her character, Mercedes, an "emotional gangster." "She has all these people who look up to her as this Queen Bee, and the one person she wants validation from isn't giving it to her."

Hall said one of her favorite scenes from the season features Keyshawn, a dancer who just returned from maternity leave and shows up bruised to work almost every day because of her abusive boyfriend. "You see Keyshawn backstage nursing her bruises, but she's also nursing her child," Hall explained. "Breasts are for making money, and breasts are also for nourishment." By showing the full spectrum of motherhood, P-Valley opens a dialogue about the judgments surrounding parenting, and questions who gets to be considered a "respectable mother."

The beauty of P-Valley is that by exploring the humanity of each of these characters, Hall is challenging taboo topics and perceptions about our judgments when it comes to sex work, relationships, and the spectrum of sexuality.

J. Alphonse Nicholson, who plays Lil Murda, says that the role and his character's relationship with Uncle Clifford made him aware for the first time of the place of privilege he'd operated from while navigating the world as a straight man. "The fear that comes with being out was so eye-opening to me," he told VICE. "People are always asking, Why people don't come out? But you realize people's lives are in danger and that they can be murdered just for loving who they want to love."

Hall says the writer's room is proud of how they've used P-Valley to translate the tenderness of Black love and intimacy, particularly for the queer community. "We know what they're up against because Uncle Clifford articulates it very clearly and firmly," she said. "And yet, despite all the dangers, there's a possibility of deep love, almost soulmate love."

Overall, Hall emphasized that the show's most critical message is that "Black people, in general, are worthy of love. They're worthy of protection, respect, and being seen for their humanity."

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.