There’s a new Shakespeare in town. Back in 2015, when Katori Hall’s Pussy Valley premiered at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota, critic Rohan Preston compared the language of the play to that of the Bard—though not in the historical sense. Rather, in the sense that it sounds like nothing you’ve heard before it in mainstream theatre. Like Shakespeare, the language is singular in its rhythms, its regional specificity (the Mississippi Delta), its own vernacular, and that it’s best understood when you stop dissecting individual words.
“The Katori Hall experience always has slanguage,” says the playwright, “meaning I honor my Southern roots and my Blackness because I honor my accent, my dialect, and the slang that I grew up with. It's such a beautiful way of speaking. It is music to me.”
Now, thousands more will have the chance to experience the language and story of Pussy Valley in the TV adaptation—or “TV inspiration,” as Hall calls it—retitled P-Valley for Starz. Premiering July 12 on the premium network, P-Valley begins with an unnamed woman (Elarica Johnson) fleeing her hometown destroyed by a flood. She lands in Chucalissa, home to the titular Pussy Valley and the most in-demand strip club in it: The Pynk. When she wins the one-night Booty Bucket competition, she asks owner and club matriarch Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) for a permanent position—which makes veteran and soon-to-be former dancer Mercedes (Brandee Evans) none too happy.
Hall laces the series with characters from which you can’t tear your eyes—aided by superb performances from a cast that includes familiar theatre faces like Annan (who originated Clifford in the stage version), J. Alphonse Nicholson (Paradise Blue, A Soldier’s Play), Morocco Omari (Pipeline), and Harriett D. Foy (Amelie, Amazing Grace). “I love the theatre family,” Hall says. “I’m like, ‘We gotta get the shine on you.’ They're so talented. Perfect for the parts, most importantly.”
As the musicality of Hall’s prose washes over, you may realize other parallels to Shakespeare: her ability to weaponize wit, how she comments on greater social issues, and the way her characters—half a world away for many of us—are stand-ins for our own emotional experiences.
“I use the strip club as this prism [to explore] the intersection of race, class, and gender,” she says.
“The play is operating on a level that goes beyond just talking about the strip club world,” she continues. “It's talking about what it means to be an American, what it means to be a survivor, someone who is resilient. And I think that is a story that, as someone who is the descendant of slaves… I'm always trying to survive over and over again in all of my work.”
Here, we dig deeper with Hall into her inspiration for the play (her coming-of-age as a customer of strip clubs), her exploration of the double-sided coin of strip club culture, and the revolution she contributes to with that neo-Shakespearean language we may just dub Katorian.
Where did the idea for the original play Pussy Valley come from? I read you took a pole dancing class and that inspired you?
Katori Hall: I actually frequented strip clubs a lot and I think a lot of people are very surprised by how common the strip club culture is down, down there. I was celebrating things—birthday parties, bachelorette parties, even as a female customer. What I saw… They was so impressive. These women with their athleticism, their flexibility, they were putting on a theatrical experience. It's like part theatre, part circus, part titillation. It was magnificent. They were flying around on the poles like they were birds. It was like they were defying gravity. And so I was always just so in love with the craft of pole-dancing from a spectator perspective. And fast forward: I'm in New York city and pole fitness had become like the thing to do. The shame started shedding away from the world of pole-dancing because of the way that these gyms were embracing it as an actual pathway to a better body. I was like, ‘Well, I'm going to get my better body.’ Well, I took the classes and oh my God, when I tell you—I could not do not even nothing. I could barely, I couldn't even like circle the pole in a way that was sexy. It made me have so much more respect for women I already respected. So that was my entry point in. And so I decided that from that day, I was really going to ask the questions that need to be asked and talk to all these women who had decided to work in this profession.
And I know you approached this through research and interviews.
I started interviewing women and clubs all across the nation. I interviewed over 40 women and it was so vital to my goal, which was to humanize women who have been dehumanized for so long. I was talking to them like they were real flesh-and-blood human beings. And so I instantly cultivated amazing relationships with the women. I met their husbands, I met other family members. I began to understand why they chose this life. And it was for so many different reasons. Some women truly needed the money. Like there was a story that was shared, this young woman was like, “I needed a root canal and I didn't have health insurance or dental insurance. So I was in pain. And so I knew that I could make the money in one night.” That's how she felt. There was another one that’s trying to leave an abusive relationship. It was always connected to survival. I was just so grateful that these women were so honest with me, like blunt and raw and real, and I knew that this story of what they have they about the world and what they have to say about struggle was so important to hear. So all of that culminated in the play good old Pussy Valley.
What did you learn from that original production?
Nataki Garrett who now runs Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she was the director and it was such a phenomenal experience. She understood that the play was going to require actresses who truly could do those athletic feats that I’d been so impressed by growing up in the South, and fuse that with the poetry and the lyricism of theatrical language. People thought that they had come to the strip club. So there was people who arrived there and were like, “Why these people talkin?” But, you know, they would leave and they felt like they could never go to another strip club again. Cause it's like, “Oh my God, these women are real. And they have dreams and struggles.”
You say strip club culture was very much a part of your coming-of-age and is a part of coming-of-age, particularly in the South and that it was a social space. I had always considered them and been taught—even through other dramatic work—that strip clubs are a product of a system of oppression. That the system is built against women and specifically women of color. And that they're pigeonholed into a place where their greatest opportunity for financial security is to be objectified and sexualized by men. But the women you're talking about sound so different. How do you hold both of those realities and navigate it as as a person and as a writer?
I think the strip club space holds both exploitation and liberation. It is within a patriarchal system and even female customers who are coming inside of that space, me included [are] operating from the seat of the male gaze. You are there to see a performance of sexuality or the illusion of a sexual act like lap-dancing. I definitely, as a woman, felt hypersensitive to exploring this world and embracing a singular ideal of empowerment. Women have been disempowered in that space, like, don't get me wrong. There were so many sad stories where the strip club in itself does participate in the subjugation of women because not all women want to do that as a job. And I don't think that the play or the show is saying that this is all empowerment. I think it is dealing with the complexity, the complication of that. Showing they've been made vulnerable by race, by their gender, or their socio-economical class, or just choices that have been imposed upon them and the environment that has been imposed on them. And so the women who are put in those unfortunate cages, how do they find the key to unlock themselves and set themselves free?
So oppressive and empowering forces cohabit the space.
Oftentimes that freedom is inextricably linked to money. What I found so interesting and quite frankly inspiring is that despite all of the isms that these women are trying to dismantle, they have figured out a way to use the club as a stepping stone—and not all of them fly. A lot of women fall in that world. It's hard being a woman wherever you are. You could be working in a hospital as a nurse and still be sexually harassed. You don't have to be naked for a man to come up and grab your breast. That is definitely part of the struggle of being a woman in society, whether you are Black, white, Asian, whatever. So I think the show really takes to task the two sides of that coin of freedom and exploitation.
We don't often think about the women who choose this because it's an athletic profession. We don't think of it as a craft, but what’s the difference between what they're doing and what Cirque du Soleil is doing?
I went to Vegas and it was interesting. I was in a hotel that was right beside a strip club. And then I went to Zumanity, the sexy, Cirque du Soleil show. And let me tell you, there was no difference between what the Cirque du Soleil acrobats were doing and what the acrobats inside of the strip clubs are doing. It was just packaged differently.
How does this research process morph into the drama? You could have written an article or done a documentary and instead you are a playwright so it morphs into this larger story.
I am often inspired by the most amazing mentor ever: Lynn Nottage. It's really about being in the space as a participatory observer. For example, I remember I went to this club called Platinum Rose in Memphis, Tennessee, and one of the customers thought I was a dancer. And so he rolled up on me and he grabbed my buttocks and I turned around and I'm like, ‘Fool now you know I am not no dancer,’ but it was just so interesting. This is what it is.
I was telling the American story and talking about how hard it is to be a Black woman in certain parts of our society. And so drama was actually very easy because there is so much conflict living at that intersection.
And so, while the female characters are definitely inspired by women I met and women I saw on the internet—dancers that I started following—the characters are just as much inspired by my living ancestors. Uncle Clifford is a fusion of my mother who is tough as nails. My father, who was this God-wielding, you know, lover. And then my real Uncle Clifford, who's this saucy old man who will read you for filth and then kiss you on the forehead later.
You put together a stable of female directors for the series. What is the angle that you, as a Black woman with a female team, show that say, a series created by men with the same characters would not?
In a man's hand it would be different, but quite frankly, it's because it's in Katori Hall's hands that I think the show is what it is. Another Black woman could do a show that is just as male gazy as another man.
I feel responsibility just because as a Black woman, I grew up with the images that were complicated. I was searching for things more reflective of the people that I knew. It is unfair that we don't allow Black people to have darkness and light in who they are. There is an unfortunate burden for Black content creators, but I feel like you deny me of my humanity, if you are demanding that I be perfect.
The language in this show is singular. Describe capturing this vernacular authentically and what you want audiences to know about hearing what may be new for some and beautifully familiar to others.
We unfortunately came to this country and our mother tongues were snatched away from us. And yet, that musicality stayed on our tongue and I really feel as though this linguistic feast that we're serving up week after week is a political act—saying that it is okay for Black people to talk the way they talk. It is a valid form of communication. It is a linguistic revolution that we're putting on television.
They truly know about the importance of words and the importance of sounds to communicate feelings and to communicate history. The show is very unapologetic about its presentation and its preservation of the way that Black people speak—particularly down South. Communication is about the nonverbal, just as much as it is about the verbal. I remember after Hot Wing King we did at Signature [Off-Broadway] one patron came up to me after the play and he was like, “I couldn't understand everything that was said,” and then he broke down into tears and he was like, “but I understand the language is love. I understand the language of family.” And that's really what a Katori Hall experience is. You don't have to understand every word. It's okay. As long as you understand humanity, then you'll be okay because that's the language that we speak.