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P-Valley reclaims stripping from a tired trope in Prestige TV dramas

  • The Sopranos famously used the Bada Bing for scenes in which Tony Soprano and his mob colleagues "talk serious man business while naked or mostly naked ladies swing around in the background," says Kathryn VanArendonk. Other prestige shows followed with strip club scenes, including The Wire, True Detective and The Outsider. "Strippers dance in the background. Occasionally one dancer becomes important to the story, but rarely more than one, and never for very long," says VanArendonk. "It’s become such a tired trope that any lurid excitement we’re supposed to get from the strip-club setting barely even registers now. Even if you set aside the exhausting, obnoxious familiarity of how sexist it all is, the scenes themselves have been visually and narratively boring:  [Camera pans from pole dancer to men huddled in a VIP booth]' So … you ever hear about some bad deals going on in this town?'" Playwright Katori Hall's Starz strip club-based drama P-Valley, which wrapped its first season over the weekend, seems like a response to those shows. "P-Valley’s story pulls from a world that’s not all that far from the stomping grounds of shows like The Wire or True Detective: It’s about money and crime, bureaucratic corruption, land, gentrification, and who gets to take up space in the world," says VanArendonk. "There’s sex, too, of course, and love and secrets. But in P-Valley, the dancers — especially Hailey (Elarica Johnson), Mercedes (Brandee Evans), and Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton) — are the main characters along with their genderqueer boss, Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan). It’s not a show about the cops or the gangsters...P-Valley isn’t a response to any one work, and it’s not the first time a stripper has been the main character rather than part of the background. It’s different from Striptease, though, or Magic Mike or even Hustlers. In those movies, the strippers get to be main characters because they’re in extraordinary circumstances, and P-Valley has no space for that. It’s too interested in the everyday reality of the Pynk, too focused on the specifics of needing to find child care while you’re dancing or how to manage your regulars. P-Valley isn’t a response to any one story; it’s a rebuttal to the assumption that strippers have to do something other than stripping if they want to be the main characters. Still, P-Valley does deal directly with the idea that stripping is valuable because eventually it helps you do something other than stripping." VanArendonk adds: "Thinking of P-Valley as defiant response fiction explains why it feels so valuable and so fresh — of course these women have fascinating, rich, complicated lives, of course they can be the center of a TV series, not just slick background bodies. The more I watched of its first season, though, the more I started to realize that thinking about it as a response or rebuttal, as a show that’s linked to and answering all the other TV depictions of exotic dancing, is only engaging with a small part of what makes P-Valley so compelling. When you frame something as a response first and foremost, it’s hard to let it stand on its own. It’s hard to divorce it from the thing it’s responding to, and P-Valley deserves to have its own space."


    • P-Valley is an anomaly -- the rare production that focuses on a strip club without turning its employees into cautionary tales or unilaterally empowered femme fatales: "In subject matter, it invites obvious comparisons to the 2019 hit film Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu," says Hannah Giorgis. "But the series benefits from the spaciousness of television as a format: P-Valley combines the weightiness of a premium-cable show with the fun and soapiness you might expect from a BET marathon. We’ve come a long way from The Players Club. P-Valley’s characters live rich, full lives shaped by the region they inhabit. Mercedes in particular is almost impossibly enthralling. She’s a titan onstage, but some of the show’s most revelatory moments are those in which she coaches a teen girls’ dance squad. The teens both idolize Mercedes and wield her job against her, a stark example of the tightrope that she and the other strippers walk no matter how hard they work or how 'respectable' they are in other arenas. But perhaps the most captivating character at The Pynk is Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan, who also played the role in the stage production). Sharp-tongued but kindhearted, Uncle Clifford is a gender-nonconforming entrepreneur whose stunning ensembles rival the women’s stage costumes. It’s partly through Uncle Clifford that the show unravels two of its most interesting subplots: the burgeoning career of the hypermasculine rapper whom Mercedes once dissed, and the potential arrival of a troubling new business in town. These story lines tease out music-industry biases, the omnipresence and danger of homophobia, and the lingering effects of the transatlantic slave trade and the southern plantation economy."
    • The "P" in P-Valley stands for prosper, for performance, for poignancy and for pump up the volume
    • P-Valley costume designer Rita McGhee on her process: "Everything has to be a winner," she says, adding: “Our actors learned how to do pole work and they were exceptional, but we also had five professional dancers and they gave us places to shop, gave us notes on what they'd wear, how they'd wear it. They were great resources for us."
    • P-Valley creator Katori Hall on crafting the Season 1 finale:  "I always had, like, five years of the show in my head," she says. "I went through this development process where I was thinking like, 'Oh this first season is going to be 13 episodes.' And they're like, 'No, we're going to give you eight.'"
    • Will P-Valley incorporate coronavirus in Season 2?: "I have been inspired by how strip clubs have tried to be extremely resilient during this pandemic that has caused so many live performance venues to shutter," says Hall. "I think everybody knows the new Goliath is Miss Rona. Our show will definitely be in conversation with what is happening in our world right now, (and) I cannot wait to see Uncle Clifford in a rhinestone mask and lace gloves. I cannot wait to see her."
    • Hall isn't surprised by P-Valley's success: "A lot of people have asked me, ‘Did you know it was going to be this successful?’ And I must say, I did have an inkling," she says. "I had always joked with the executives like, ‘Oh, millions of people are going to watch this,’ and they’d be like, ‘Really?’ We’re going deep on a lot of different issues. People tend to underestimate work that centers Black narratives, specifically Black female narratives, and I’m just so happy and proud that we have showed up and showed out. And people are talking about it in such a way that it just feels so satisfying, because they’re seeing all of the depth and the nuance and the complication, and they’re also seeing themselves, even though they’re not Lil Murda, they’re not Uncle Clifford, they’re not Mercedes, but they are truly seeing their own struggles inside of theirs."

    TOPICS: P-Valley, Starz, The Outsider, The Sopranos, True Detective, The Wire, Brandee Evans, Katori Hall, Nicco Annan, Rita McGhee, Coronavirus, Costume Design, Prestige TV