Katori Hall is having a moment. Almost a year ago, the television adaptation of her stage play “P-Valley” debuted as an ongoing series to critical acclaim and impressive ratings on Starz. Last week, her play “The Hot Wing King,” which premiered a month before the pandemic hit in 2020, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A playwright, journalist, and actor, Hall is now on the cusp of Emmy Award recognition for her breakthrough series. She isn’t taking that opportunity for granted.
“I was a first-time showrunner and I ran my own show,” Hall says. “That is the one thing that I’m super proud of because oftentimes people will kind of force another co-showrunner upon you, kind of lording over you, and they just literally gave me the wheel and I was able to make every creative decision. Every time I was like, ‘No, this is what I want to do,’ they let me do it. They let me do the show that I wanted to create and for that, I will be forever grateful because I know that’s rare.”
“P-Valley” is centered around The Pynk, a popular strip club in a fictional small city in Mississippi. The owner, the non-binary identifying Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) is dealing with numerous ongoing crises including possible eviction, Mercedes (Brandee Evans), his star dancer who has announced her retirement, and Autumn (Elarica Johnson), a mysterious new dancer who is clearly on the run from someone (who that is remains to be seen). And that doesn’t even take into account the stress of Clifford’s own down-low relationship with up and coming rapper Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson).
With season two almost ready to begin filming, Hall took the time to discuss the first season of “P-Valley” before her landmark Pulitizer win.
The Playlist: Congratulations on all of the accolades that you’ve received since the Gotham Awards nomination. The show earned a Spirit Award nomination, some Guild love, and an NAACP Image Award. What is your reaction been to the sort of critical and industry appreciation for the show?
Katori Hall: I mean, real talk, I have just been so thankful. I just come from a deep place of gratitude, especially knowing that this business is incredibly hard, is incredibly challenging to do work that is as unapologetic. And so a pat on the back for it, I will take it. But it’s so rare to get that critical acclaim and that audience love, but I will say that I’m much more satisfied with the audience love, just because I know that this is the story, this is the world, and these are characters that we don’t get that chance to see that often. And I feel like the audience that we do have, they feel reflected and they feel seen in the show, and to me, that’s the most important thing about writing stories and making art.
I know that this story began on the stage, but what was the original inspiration behind it?
You know, I actually grew up going to strip clubs, so it was just a part of Southern culture, Southern black culture. It was something that we didn’t necessarily look at in a shameful way. And I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the dancers were seen through a lens of athleticism. It wasn’t that they were just taking off their clothes, they were actually performing the Cirque du Soleil-esque skills that deserve to be applauded with lots and lots of ones. So, I kind of took my upbringing and then also saw how there were so many women starting to take pole fitness classes. It’s interesting to see how something that was seen at seedy was actually embraced by the mainstream in gyms all across the country. And so that collision led me to start interviewing women and really sitting down with them, whether it was backstage at a club or in their own houses, and really ask them those complicated questions as to why they chose the profession or understand why that profession chose them. So, I would say it came from a journalistic impulse to just really understand why. And also knowing that oftentimes this world is misunderstood. These women are misrepresented, they’re not respected. And I really wanted to put some respect on their name because I knew that what they were doing is art. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You try and swing dressed up around a pole and we’ll see how you [do]. It was just really an attempt to just honor my upbringing, honor what I had seen, but also to provide a platform for people to see these women as the goddesses they are.
It’s important that you mentioned the true athleticism of these dancers. There’s a great moment, I don’t remember what episode it is, but one of the dancers is on the pole and the point of view switches to her point of view, and you hear her breathing and the nervousness of not only pulling off her move but not getting hurt. Whether it was in the script or the director’s choice, I really appreciated that in terms of what you guys brought to the show.
Absolutely. We really wanted people to understand that there is work happening up on that pole. It takes an incredible amount of strength. It takes an incredible amount of skill, and the fact that we were able to kind of put our audience in a dancer’s perspective and just feel the exertion, I felt really articulated just how hard it is and that only a few of us, few ladies can do it, especially if they do it per night. A lot of people quote those particular scenes as a moment where they’re like, “Oh, I really understand that these women need to be respected.
What was the biggest challenge in transforming this story from a play to eight-hour-long episodes?
The biggest challenge was just learning how to tell a story for the long haul. I think the thing that I learned the most was that TV is really focused on character and world. And then plays, you have a particular parenthesis, a particular amount of time to tell the story, that it has to begin at a certain time but it has to end. And with TV, it’s like you have to construct multiple endings over the course of your season. And so that’s really hard, this idea of serialized writing, keeping the baton passing along story-wise from character to character in terms of the narrative. I had to kind of like switch how I came to the page because oftentimes I write with my ending in mind. And in this instance with TV, I had to trust that my characters were going to find their endings. I could not force certain things upon them, so it’s a different way of writing. It almost feels like I’m up in the sky on a tight rope and I’m like, “Oh my God, the wind is going to blow me down.” But I love it. And I love it because I have shifted from this more singular approach to my writing where it’s just me and I’m opening up, I had to open up my process and include other brains that might be better than mine into my own process and hold them in. So, I will say I’ve become a better writer because I’ve been able to work with a group of writers.
When you pitched the show to Starz, did you break down multiple seasons? Because clearly, it’s not a limited series. There are a number of storylines that are purposely unresolved at the end of the season.
I did have many, many excuses for that to the point where I remember [Starz CEO and president] Chris Albrecht was like, “O.K., O.K., Yeah, I could see you have a lot in your head.” I was like, “By season five I think…” And I think that’s probably the reason why they were like, “Let’s develop this project because she obviously understands that this is about the long haul, long-form storytelling,” but also I just had such passion. Like I literally, I’ve been telling people this, I could lay in my grave and sleep really well because I feel as though every story that I’m telling them in “P-Valley” is just like the stories that I’ve been wanting to tell all my life. And I’m not just telling stories about dancing, like, I’m getting to talk about gentrification. I’m getting to talk about the issues that black people in the south are dealing with. I am just dealing with so many things and it’s within the sandbox of a strip club. And it’s so surprising that I get to delve into all of these stories and these characters, but it’s been a joy. And I just feel as though I can do it forever, but I know for right now I only have five years in my head.
Mercedes’s character goes through such heartbreak throughout the season. The scene where she discovers her mother has betrayed her is incredible. Brandee’s performance is so great that you’re rooting for a second season because her character needs a win. She needs one win.
Yeah. Exactly. She needs to win something! It’s hard being a black woman in America, so you know. That’s the story we’re telling.
For season two, Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for Mercedes?
I will say they’re complicated times and I will say that the Mercedes that we’ve grown to know and love in season one, we root for her even more in season two. She is a fighter but she’s [also] this emotional gangster and there’s so many people that I’ve kind of run into, a lot of women and men, who feel like Mercedes is their spirit animal. She’s just resilient. And even when she gets broken down, there’s always this attempt to rise again, and I think that’s the thing that we’re going to continue seeing in Mercedes and continue being inspired by.
Speaking of season two, have you begun production, or you still writing it?
We’re about to go into production.
Following up on that, you wrote and shot the original season before the pandemic. One of the things I appreciated about it is this could have taken place in 2015, 2017, or 2019. It wasn’t timestamped specifically. Did you feel going into season two you had to reflect at all about what is going on or is it still sort of any time within the past five or six years?
It’s interesting. I would say [what’s] complicated about this moment, particularly as a black person, is that this moment has been happening in various ways. No, we haven’t been dealing with a pandemic per se, but we have been dealing with a racial reckoning ever since the first slave arrived here in 1619. So, even though it may feel like an attempt to reflect the time, we’re literally reflecting history and the present and possibly the future, even when we are dealing very specifically with 2020 and 2021, and that’s just the unfortunate thing. And like I said, as a black woman, I felt like it would be irresponsible for me to not be reflective of this specific time. So I’m not really worried about the timestamp because I feel like it could be timely and timeless.
And it has a lot to do with the fact that black women have been dealing with this shit for centuries, and it’s just that the virus has kind of exacerbated these issues, these problems, these cracks in our society. And it just so happens that now other people can see them very clearly. I’m actually quite grateful that I got an opportunity to write to the time because I do think to talk about politics, to talk about society through the lens of exotic dancers in Mississippi, that’s just such a rare perspective, and I’m just really grateful that we can use the cable platform that we have to tell it in a deep way, in a hardworking way, but also in a funny way and in an entertaining way.
Nicco originated Uncle Clifford on the stage. I know he had to audition for it. Were you nervous about it or was it a formality?
I was not nervous about it and he was not nervous about it. Most people who work with me learn very quickly that I’m extremely transparent, probably too transparent, and it’s that thing of not only did he have to prove himself, but I had to prove myself as a showrunner. I had to prove to my bosses that I knew what I was doing and I knew which actors to pick for my show. So, I went in very kind of, like, “This is part of the process,” but I was like, “I think it helps you get back into the character and do it in front of a camera versus on a stage.” Because there’s a difference. Oftentimes a lot of theater actors struggle with making that transition from the stage to the screen. And for me, I just told him, “You’re getting ready for the show. This is not a thing where you’re being tested. This is just part of the process for both of us to get ready.”
What was the reaction from the black community about the Uncle Clifford character? Did you get pushback about it?
It’s all over the place. It’s complicated, but what I have been so satisfied by is that people who have expressed homophobic thoughts in the past, have DMed me and said, “Uncle Clifford is my favorite character and I just never would’ve thought.” These famous people, who shall remain nameless, but it’s just really interesting to see the love that folks have for the character of Uncle Clifford, but also the character of Lil Murda. Like, that struggle of being a young black man particularly who presents in such a masculine way and people not understanding that, “Oh, men who present that way can also be gay.” It’s really cracked open a lot of closets. [Laughs.] There have been some uncomfortable conversations about how we suppress ourselves, not only black gay men, it’s just across the board. Like, you can kind of take the struggle out of Lil Murda and apply it to a lot of different situations that people go through where they just feel like they can’t be their authentic selves. And so I was really proud that our characters, who are fictional, have been able to create space for people to step into their truth. It’s really hard to do that, but it feels so good that we’re kind of showing people a blueprint, and showing people that you can be this way. You can be a Lil Murda with all the swag and be in love with someone like Uncle Clifford. I always tell my writer’s room, “Are we writing stories, or are we trying to change the world?” And oftentimes we aim for trying to change the world. I just think it’s important to do it now when so much transformation is happening in our society.
It’s such a credit to you, and the writers, and to the actors that there’s such depth to all of them. It doesn’t at all feel one note or surface level. Especially the actor even who plays Lil Murda. I feel like so much of his performance isn’t spoken. On a different subject entirely, of the great things about this show is you were sort of the underdog on Starz, but as the weeks went on, your Nielsen ratings not including the people watching it on streaming, increased. It got bigger. Was that when you knew, “O.K., we’re good.” with a second season”?
It is so funny. I didn’t know nothing about them Nielsen ratings. I didn’t know what was good or what was bad. I didn’t really watch it like the people who work at Starz did. I would get emails or texts, and I’d be like, “Oh, that’s good.” I was more interested in what black Twitter was saying.
Before you shoot the second season and it all becomes awash, is there one moment of the show that you’re most proud of over the course of the first season?
Oh, I cannot say that there’s one moment. I would say the whole thing. We got through it. I was a first-time showrunner and I ran my own show. That is the one thing that I’m super proud of because oftentimes people will kind of force another co-showrunner upon you, kind of lording over you, and they just literally gave me the wheel and I was able to make every creative decision. Every time I was like, “No, this is what I want to do,” they let me do it. They let me do the show that I wanted to create and for that I will be forever grateful because I know that’s rare.
“P-Valley” season one is available on Starz. Season two should arrive sometime in 2022.