'P-Valley' shines a spotlight on strip club culture : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Starz drama P-Valley is set in a Black strip club in the Mississippi Delta. The dancers are acrobatic, artistic and independent. The show is about their labor, but also about a wide variety of stories about power, money, and a community's identity. It recently returned for a second season, so in this encore episode, we revisit our discussion about the show's first season.

'P-Valley' shines a spotlight on strip club culture

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

The Starz drama "P-Valley" is set in a Black strip club in the Mississippi Delta. The dancers are acrobatic, artistic and independent. The show is about their labor but also about a wide variety of stories about power, money and a community's identity. The show is really good, and it recently returned for a second season, so we thought it would be a good time to revisit our discussion about the first season, featuring Soraya Nadia McDonald and Taylor Crumpton. I'm Linda Holmes, and in this encore episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're talking about "P-Valley."

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HOLMES: So to give you a sense of this show, if you haven't had a chance to watch it, "P-Valley" is from Katori Hall, who's a playwright. She adapted this from her own play. It focuses a lot of its attention, I would say, on three characters - Mercedes, who's the headliner at the club, played by Brandee Evans; Autumn, who's a new girl with a mysterious past, played by Elarica Johnson; and Uncle Clifford, the owner of the club, played by Nicco Annan. There are other characters, too. They show up in stories about church and music and real estate and local politics and all kinds of things. There are clearly a lot of mysteries that are yet to be uncovered. Soraya, you wrote a really positive review of "P-Valley" over at The Undefeated. What do you think the show gets right?

SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: Well, a lot of things. First off, I was just really happy to see this, like, rich, fully developed melodrama set in the Mississippi Delta. I grew up in North Carolina, and so I'm always looking for new and interesting stories about Black Southerners, and Katori Hall, herself, is from Memphis. And so I think one of the first things that struck me when I was watching this - one, I was like, oh, my God, they actually got the dialect. But I just found that to be so refreshing.

The other thing, though, that I really appreciated about the series is it takes a group of people seriously who very often aren't taken seriously, and that's strippers and sex workers at large. And so sort of rather than kind of collapsing them into common tropes where, you know, what you often see in film and television is either, if there are strippers in a show, they are sort of used as background, almost as wallpaper, the way the dancers at the Bada Bing were used in "The Sopranos," or, you know, they are strippers with a heart of gold, right? There has to be this sort of element about them where they're feeling some amount of shame about the work that they're doing, and they're trying really hard to get away from it, you know? Like, oh, she does this one thing, but she's actually a good person, right? Or, you know, this other idea that comes up really often, which is tying the notion of what it means to be a good father with keeping your daughter off the pole, right? That's a joke from, like, Chris Rock's special, "Never Scared," that has just sort of built upon itself.

"P-Valley" basically just sort of, like, does away with all of that and is like, we're going to have a story. It's set in a strip club in the Mississippi Delta. These characters are all really layered and interesting. They're not necessarily, like, angels or demons. And we're going to talk about, like, you know, all the subjects that you just mentioned, from religion to gentrification and land development to race and racism. And on top of that, like, you've just got this wonderfully interesting character in Uncle Clifford, who runs this club called The Pink and who just has, like, fabulous outfit after fabulous outfit and who has also created a space for herself, because Uncle Clifford is nonbinary, to live in a place that we typically think of as being inhospitable to queer people. And so all of that just adds up to, I think, a really interesting and also fun show.

HOLMES: Yeah, there were times at the very beginning when I wondered if there was maybe, like, one too many plots, just because I was having trouble keeping up with, you know, all the characters within the club. And then there's - I have, like, a weakness where I - my eyes glaze over every time a movie or a TV show starts talking about real estate.

MCDONALD: (Laughter).

HOLMES: My brain just, like, goes numb. But later, you know, I think as these episodes develop, you do see how the real estate story kind of knits together with the other stories. And I think eventually, you know, the church story and the club story sort of are able to kind of mesh. Taylor, what do you think of the show?

TAYLOR CRUMPTON: I think for me, I definitely appreciated an emphasis on the Mississippi Delta. In so many conversations and media depictions of the South, we primarily focus on Atlanta because of its positionality as the Black Mecca, without realizing that there is so much complexity and nuances in other regions in the South, especially the Mississippi Delta. I mean, the state, in our nation's consciousness, was known as a hub of the civil rights movement. Right now Mississippi is an archetype of how decades of social and economic policy has really hindered social mobility for Black communities, which is why The Pink is seen as such an economic capital and resource of that town because it's one of the few areas in which Black women, who in the Mississippi Delta suffer from the highest rates of obesity, infant and maternal mortality and poverty, are able to provide just an economic foundation for their growth and their families' growth. And we see the community that, in these regions, especially in the South, strip clubs really are the economic heart of the town.

HOLMES: Yeah, I very much appreciated the fact that so much of the show is about - it's very kind of tuned into the specific economic realities of these individual characters, right? You have one character, Autumn, who has kind of come to the strip club in - closer to the way that maybe other television shows would introduce someone, which is they're sort of a mysterious person. They just need a job that doesn't ask too many questions. And so originally, that's kind of how you meet her. But Mercedes, I think - there's such an interesting story with her about the fact that she has a very specific aspiration, and she's not - and I think this is part of what Soraya was saying that I agree with - she's not embarrassed by stripping. She just has other things she wants to eventually do, partly because she wants to have her own business and work for herself.

So she has a plan, but it's not the sort of TV storyline where it's OK that she's a stripper because she's just doing it so she can become a nurse or that kind of thing, where there's a sense that it's sort of something distasteful but acceptable if it's for - you know, if the ends justify the means. She is good at what she does. And I think one of the things that Katori Hall has talked about quite a bit is really trying to make sure people understand the artistry and the physical work that go into strip club dancing, particularly pole work. There are two - in the first, I would say, four episodes, there are two different dance sequences where you just - I mean, when people compare it to Cirque du Soleil, like, it is some Cirque du Soleil business, and you really do get that feeling for how physical it is.

"Hustlers" sort of starts as a labor movie, talking about some of the issues that they experience working in the club, but then it kind of veers off into this other plot about the drugging of the guys and all that stuff, and it veers away a little bit from the experience in the club. I appreciated the fact that this really stays - you know, it gets at the competition between the women, the fact that people really value their stage time and their prominence, which also opens up the discussions that they have about colorism because, you know, Autumn is very light-skinned, and from the minute she shows up, that is a big part of her interactions with the other women.

MCDONALD: You know, that's another one of these dynamics that you see sort of playing out at The Pynk - right? - because you have Mercedes, who has obviously invested in her craft, and she takes pride in it - right? - she thinks about the stage wear that she's going to put on, you know, her wigs, how she's doing her hair but also her ability to sort of, like, size up customers, particularly those who might end up wanting to get a lap dance. Like, she has this amazing instinct almost for anthropology and economics when it comes to sort of figuring out who to spend time with.

But going back to colorism, the other thing that she understands and expresses some anger about is the fact that, you know, when Autumn arrives, she's already sort of, like, sucking away attention because she's the new girl. But she's also, you know, sucking away attention because she's so light-skinned to the point that she could possibly pass. Even though Autumn is not necessarily nearly a skilled dancer as Mercedes is, particularly with her pole work, she's still able to separate men from their money fairly easily.

And as I was watching this, the thing that I kept coming back to was this essay that Tressie McMillan Cottom, who is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote years ago when she was talking about the experiences of seeing the way men - in particular, she was talking about white men in Atlanta, like, college-age white men - consume Black women's bodies at the strip club, and how much more labor Black strippers end up putting in to make less money than their white counterparts who can maybe sort of show up and take their clothes off and kind of twirl around and be pretty and not really have to do much else. And that's the dynamic that you see between Autumn and Mercedes.

You know, I think that just comes back to Katori's ability to sort of observe life and translate them exceptionally well to the screen so that you get all of those nuances between these interactions with these women because she's really spent, like, quite a bit of time observing this particular atmosphere. You know, it feels like she really immersed herself.

HOLMES: For sure. Let me throw it back over to you, Taylor. What are you thinking about some of these themes that Soraya is talking about?

CRUMPTON: So when we're talking about colorism, especially in strip clubs and exemplified through Southern hip-hop - right? - because we have to understand that the way in which we are digesting strip club culture is because of the way in which it was popularized in the dirty South in southern hip-hop - right? We've seen even in the - you know, a latest conversation in 50 Cent and Lil Wayne, the valuing of racially ambiguous and light-skinned women that appear to be exotic or could pass in comparison to dark-skinned Black women who really much are the foundation and built the strip club to be the capitalist and indulgent culture that we see today, especially in this TV series.

So when we're looking at Mercedes and Autumn, we're seeing all of these historical, cultural and political notions about what it means to have these two Black women in relation to each other, one who is a dark-skinned woman who seems to be the OG and the leader of this economic capital and powerhouse in the town, in comparison to this very light-skinned woman who just came in, who we can tell through her dialect - right? - has some type of college education. I think in the first episode, a stripper is like, oh, you have, like, a Saint Yves Laurent bag? And she corrects her with that diction, right? So we're already kind of seeing these ways in which this classism element is also inserted into the strip club by their interactions.

And as Soraya was saying about dialect, you can tell that Mercedes very much encapsulates this Southern sweetheart identity in her interactions with her clienteles, with the girls, her status as a celebrity in the town, while Autumn comes in kind of being seen as a high yellow heifer, as Uncle Clifford and Mercedes says. And the ways in which high yellow heifer is heard in the South is a cultural kind of symbol, signifier, a whistle blow about the ways in which she's going to move and navigate in this town in relation to its Southern dynamics.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I also want to give a shout to an interview that Katori Hall did on Bullseye with Tre'vell Anderson in which they talked quite a lot about Uncle Clifford as a nonbinary character embraces - and this is one of the things that she said about Uncle Clifford is that she uses she/her pronouns but also really embraces being called Uncle Clifford, and that it was very intentional to really have that character embrace specifically masculine ideas and specifically feminine ideas. I really recommend that conversation if you're curious about the evolution of that character, which I very much was. I think that's a terrific performance.

I think everybody is really good in this show. All the episodes were directed by women. I think you can tell. It's very hard to make a show in a strip club that avoids seeming like it's ogling strippers, but it does not come off that way. It does treat them like dancers and workers.

We obviously, as you can tell, really like this show and think it's well done. And we want to know what you think about "P-Valley." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, sign up for our newsletter. That's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. I'm Linda Holmes, and we will see you all tomorrow.

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