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[SeriesFest 2020] ‘P-Valley’: Strip club culture through the female gaze

SeriesFest is an annual show held in Denver that is dedicated to spotlighting innovative episodic content. Like many other events, they had to adjust to the current pandemic and decided to hold their sixth installment virtually.

During SeriesFest’s opening night on Thursday, they held a screening of the upcoming Starz drama, P-Valley, followed by a Q&A with the series’ creator and showrunner, Katori Hall, and cast members, Brandee Evans, Nico Annan, Shannon Thornton, and Elarica Johnson. The story centers around a strip club in the Mississippi Delta and the community of people associated with it including the dancers, employees, owners, and patrons.

I was pleasantly surprised by the pilot episode. There are reused plot lines such as a rivalry between the established star dancer and the new upstart, a budding rapper and his entourage carelessly throwing money around, and the one performer dealing with domestic abuse. However, the writing and acting provide a touch of authenticity and make the characters feel more than stereotypes. There are also enough unexpected twists to keep things fresh.

Visually, it’s pretty stunning both inside and out of the club and the use of colored lighting brings an artistic touch. The most impressive part is the athleticism the actresses possess to perform their dances. In particular, Evans’ Mercedes who is the main attraction. The captured energy in the room and the power she commands is electric. She literally pulls a Lionel Ritchie and starts dancing on the ceiling. P-Valley may not be a show I would gravitate toward, but the first episode had me intrigued to watch more.

During the Q&A, Hall spoke of the long process of bringing the series to television. It originally began as a play that she spent six years to create. She travelled to over 40 different strip clubs across the country and interviewed numerous dancers to obtain an honest and unvarnished depiction of these women and this world. After the response of the play, Hall knew she had to make it into a TV show. After pitching to Starz, it took an additional five years to finally get it ready to premiere next month.

P-Valley Cast

P Valley’s creator is a daughter of the south and originally hails from Memphis. Growing up, strip clubs were a place to go for celebrations from birthdays to baby showers. She wanted to highlight this culture and based the characters on the women she had met. Hall also wanted to portray the diversity of perspectives from all these dancers since they all do it for different reasons. Some just love it, some use it as an escape from relationships while others need the money. The series shows the kaleidoscopic viewing of this world.

The cast then went into a little more detail about their characters. Evans described Mercedes as the loyal OG friend that everyone needs. She also has a complicated relationship with her mother wanting to be seen and approved. Mercedes is working hard and isn’t dancing to just be part of the club scene. She’s working towards a bigger future and uses stripping as a stepping stone.

Johnson’s Autumn Night is mysterious but is searching for an identity. She is using stripping as a tool to get what she wants but still has some figuring out to do and that’s why she struggles to find out who she is.

Annan was actually in the original play and is assuming the same role of Uncle Clifford; a beautiful non binary black character that identifies as she. She is the glue that holds the club together and serves as a boss, confidante, friend and maybe a lover. Viewers might be confused by Uncle Clifford but she is all about humanity and heart.

Miss Mississippi, played by Thornton, is an infectious, bubbly woman who is also vulnerable and honest. She is so energetic; she spells her name out serving as her own hype-man. The actress says Miss Miss uses humor to escape all the heavy stuff going on in her life and struggles with being a dark-skinned black girl who is stuck in an abusive relationship. Though she appears confident on stage, Instagram, and with her girls, deep down she’s insecure.

P-Valley 2

Slang, vernacular and colloquialism all play a big part of P-Valley. Hall calls it slanguage and uses it to honor her southern roots and blackness. She considers African Americans so innovative when it comes to language that there is a rhythm and cadence in how they speak to each other. Her scripts are so detailed that even the pitch and the rate that lines are said can affect their meanings. Everything needs to be said as she wrote it or else the characters wouldn’t be speaking with authenticity. It has its own lexicon and rhythm.

The talent definitely had to adjust. Evans, who was previously an English teacher, had to turn off the switch to her proper side and get back to her Memphis roots to get the accent right. Annan described it like doing a musical since the words couldn’t be contained in a steady language. The sounds can go anywhere and he had to utilize his whole range to express interest and intrigue. Thornton, who grew up in Connecticut, is accustomed to enunciating. Miss Mississippi is feminine and prissy but also ratchet and lit so she listened to a lot of southern hip hop and imitated girls who had the twang on Instagram to get the flow right.

P-Valley has female directors for all the episodes but this wasn’t originally the plan. During interviews, Hall would ask “What does the female gaze mean to you?”. All the men didn’t have an answer because they never thought about it. On the other hand, the women did and went further by discussing what hadn’t worked previously for women sex workers in film and ideas how to investigate it.

Seeing the world from the woman’s lens is important to the show. Many strip club scenes are from the spectators’ perspective, which are usually men. All the female directors that were chosen had specific ways to visually articulate the female gaze utilizing different camera angles. An example is Autumn Haze’s first dance scene where we see her on stage one moment but see where her mind is while performing the next.

It was interesting to learn more about the series before it airs. Based off of the pilot and the Q&A, P-Valley is looking to be an engaging show with a different perspective. It will premiere July 12 at 8 p.m. on Starz.

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