‘P-Valley’ Is the Show of the Summer. Why Aren’t You Watching It?

Following the lives of the employees working at a Chucalissa strip club called the Pynk, the Starz drama P-Valley is provocative, intoxicating, and stunningly, specifically, real. Right from the captivatingly eerie theme song, which starts with the lyrics, “Down in the valley where the girls get naked,” it propels you into the neon-lit strip club situated deep in the Mississippi Delta, immersing you in stories, characters, behaviors and language that captures the nuances of Southern Black culture in a way that few other shows do.Rooted in a world that exists in many small towns across the country, P-Valley is an edgy and layered drama; a cousin to The Player’s Club with the sparkling visuals of Hustlers or Zola, and Southern storytelling like you find in Queen Sugar. Showrunner and creator Katori Hall has described her show (which is nearing the end of its second season) as an effort to allow viewers to empathize with people who have been historically marginalized. Hall presents the lives of the strippers not through the eyes of Pynk’s paying customers, but through the Black female gaze, creating three-dimensional characters with full lives and specific, complicated ambitions that bring up questions of morality, vulnerability, power, and consent. The Pynk’s main dancers are: Mercedes (Brandee Evans), the OG dancer, hustling toward a future outside of the club; Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton), aka Mississippi, a pretty girl stuck in a physically abusive relationship; and Hailey (Elarica Johnson), aka Autumn Night, the mysterious newcomer with a dark past. The other club mainstays are Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), an aspiring rapper and frequent patron, and the illustrious Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), the gender-nonconforming club owner.Elarica Johnson and Nicco Annan in P-Valley.Courtesy of Erika Doss for Starz via Everett Collection.Like many elements of the show, including the unique regional dialect of the characters, Chucalissa is a nod to Hall’s innate understanding of Southern Black culture. Hall, who is from Memphis, explained via Twitter that “if Memphis, Tunica, and Jackson had a baby it would be Chucalissa.” Non-Southerners may have no idea what that means, but that’s part of the magic of P-Valley; the series provides a lens into Southern Black culture that is lacking in mainstream media. From the use of the front porch as a place of congregation, to direct nods to real locations like the Hurt Village housing project, to the ever present influence of the Black church, P-Valley is an authentic portrait of Southern Black life. The second season includes a storyline centered on hoodoo traditions in the South: the Pynk’s bodyguard, Diamond (Tyler Lepley), is also a rootworker, and steps in to remove negative energy from the club after a chaotic evening that went down in season 1. As Hall pointed out (in one of her regular live-tweeting sessions that accompany each episode’s original broadcast, Sunday nights at 8pm ET), African diasporic spirituality is a large part of everyday life in the South.P-Valley does a deep dive into the complicated issues that face people in similar communities: race, sexuality, poverty, incarceration, police brutality, mental health, and, of course, sex work and strip club culture. The women know their livelihood is hinged on their youth and bodies, and have to battle patrons who believe strippers relinquish their right to consent based on their profession. To write off P-Valley as a guilty-pleasure “stripper drama” would be a reductive disservice to what Hall and her collaborators have created. Hall gives her characters autonomy and agency beyond being sex objects, intentionally filming pole-dancing scenes in a way that accentuates the athleticism and discipline of the trade. P-Valley is a show about the humanity behind the performance.