“Black history tends to be distorted, whether in the media or in the history books,” she told The Washington Post in a video interview. “I want people 10 or 20 years from now to be able to look back on ‘P-Valley’ Season 2 and have an honest and accurate articulation of what marginalized communities have been through during the pandemic.”
That might make the Starz series sound like a disappointment. But how could that be, when it’s a dense, sprawling workplace drama set in a legendary Mississippi strip club filled with sharp women and queer people, lush dialogue fleshed out by earthy slang and theatrical monologues, and some of the sexiest, athletic dance sequences in pop culture today? (The latter’s secret, Hall says, is to emphasize “what a woman’s body can do and not necessarily what a woman’s body looks like.”)
Growing up in Memphis, Hall, her high school’s first black major, frequented strip clubs — performance-oriented spaces that she says, at least in the South, never seemed to be just for men. . (She laughs as she recalls the dates she went with her husband to such clubs.) Many people don’t see stripping as an art form, but Hall calls its most accomplished practitioners “Josephine Bakers of the modern times”. When she sees the high caliber dancers on the pole, “I see an Olympic level sport. And, quite frankly, Broadway-level art at times.
Hall doesn’t make the comparison casually. When covid first forced live production shutdowns, she had two shows in the middle of their runs: the Tony-nominated Tina Turner musical “Tina” on Broadway (for which she co-wrote the book) and the off-Broadway, Pulitzer-winning play “The Hot Wing King” (currently playing at DC’s Studio Theater). “As someone working in a picking-based business,” Hall said of the stage shows, “I really understood the economic impact and the impact on the soul of not being able to do one’s job. She had little time to grieve. Learning to be a pandemic showrunner was “the hardest job I’ve ever had to do in my entire life” — and she did it while pregnant. Her 4 month old baby, like her, has recently recovered from covid.
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So how do you make art surviving the pandemic? Season 2’s opening scene responds to that with a wink — and soap bubbles. An exhausted young father who needs a break from his family life comes out of his house, gets into the car and sees neon lights pointing to “The Mercedes Experience”. It’s at a car wash, where his vehicle gets cleaned while things get dirty. A dancer wearing a glittering face mask with matching nipple pasties spins about six feet as other bikini-clad women rub their soapy sponges against her windows (or each other). Headliner Mercedes (Brandee Evans) finally appears, suggestively riding an untied carousel horse as a prelude before doing an upside-down split while the bottoms of her silver lamé boots sparkle. But because “P-Valley,” which began as a stage play, is about stripping as both a show and a job, we soon learn that the car wash hardly keeps the dancers in the dark, and the Mercedes’ injured shoulder is increasingly affecting his ability to hang on to the pole on the horse.
Hall drew inspiration from actual clubs that had moved their shows outside when the virus hit. By the end of Season 1, the show’s central location, the Pynk, had been saved from financial ruin by an eleventh-hour infusion of cash from dancer-turned-majority-owner, the mysterious Autumn (Elarica Johnson). . But at the start of Season 2, most of that money had been spent on keeping the club and its employees afloat, as “non-essential” small businesses were ineligible for government aid. When containment is lifted in the city, there is little money left to meet new public health requirements: HEPA filters, glass partitions, operation at 50% capacity.
One of “P-Valley’s” most compelling narrative strands – and where it diverges from most pop-cultural depictions of stripping – is its characterization of the dancers as members of family and community. Mercedes is helpless as her sister (Helen Goldsby), who lost her job during the pandemic, falls off the wagon without the structure of a 9 to 5 and becomes unable to care for Mercedes’ (Azaria Carter) teenage daughter . Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), the Pynks’ non-binary mother hen and now minority owner, knows there’s no way to convince their lovely roommate and grandmother (Loretta Devine) to take covid seriously . Season 2 has regularly foreshadowed the diabetic leading lady’s death, especially during 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, as she and her writers conceptualized the season, it seemed reasonable to wonder if the virus could be defeated by the time the show returned. But Hall, who took Nina Simone’s diktat to heart 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 didn’t articulate that moment in history,” she said. And even if a cure for covid was on the way, the fallout from the disease 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 take a break and see so many of us die, actually die? The repercussions of this will be felt for a lifetime.
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“P-Valley” is also the rare series to dramatize a warning often broadcast in the media at the start of the quarantine, but rarely addressed since: a spike in domestic violence and child abuse. While the series has no shortage of dark storylines, its most tragic tends to revolve around Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton), a Pynk star with honed entrepreneurial instincts and a huge following on social media. Once the social distancing begins, her online influence turns into a double-edged sword, as it allows her to financially support her resident 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 her with her burgeoning sponsorship deals — the pressure of caring for a toddler and a baby by itself proves too much for Derrick to handle.
“P-Valley” straddles the line between soapy and event-realistic, given its precarious economic milieu. The show admires the creative potential and muscular vigor of stripping, but casts doubt that the work can lift dancers out of poverty or long-term social stigma. Even a well-paid star like Mercedes has seen his efforts to become legit by opening a dance studio for girls continually derailed.
But the show’s hardened survivors are so admirably tough that some viewers apparently lost sympathy for “weaker” characters like Keyshawn, who remained trapped in her relationship with Derrick. “What’s interesting is that we saw a lot of our audience members get frustrated to see her locked up with her partner,” Hall observes. “But that’s what’s happened to millions of women around the world.” She has also noticed that some fans refuse to acknowledge the prostitution that Mercedes undertakes to pay the bills as such. “They call it a financial relationship because [she and the clients] have conversations,” Hall says. “Many women take on emotional labor within their [sex] work that I think few people are aware of.
At the height of the pandemic, 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 the mask-wearing lag “might be non-existent.” Despite changing safety protocols, Hall, who waited throughout production, felt the least anxious on set, where she knew cast and crew were tested several times a week.
“It’s basically all the things you’re not supposed to do during a pandemic,” she says of filming the scenes with sex, makeup, crowds and lap dancing. But even more difficult than keeping people physically safe was tackling the mental toll the virus took on the cast and crew. Many knew people who had died, of covid or other causes. “You start to be very careful about how you use your time, because the dash between your day of birth and your day of death seems to shrink during a pandemic,” says Hall. The set was full of individual existential calculations, and the person in charge of it all could only be grateful that people keep coming back to work. “Making a show that reflected what we were going through in the real world,” Hall says, “sometimes we felt like we couldn’t escape.”
But she’s glad they all made it. “We were able to put our frustrations into art and articulate an authentic experience for our viewers,” she says, “because we were literally going through it day to day.”
P-Valley airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Starz.