“Down in the valley where the girls get naked/ If you throwin’ bands then you know she gone shake it/ 1,2 break ‘em/ 3,4 rake ‘em” —”Down in the Valley” by Jucee Froot
STARZ’s “P-Valley” is a mesmerizing, deeply character-driven piece of art that wraps its audience in rich southern soil, Blackness, hip-hop and defiance. Adapted from acclaimed playwright Katori Hall’s 2015 play “Pussy Valley,” the gothic noir drama is set in the Mississippi Delta and destigmatizes sex work and gender fluidity in the Black community, all while showcasing incredible performances and unapologetic writing.
Hall, who serves as showrunner, made sure that every episode was helmed by a female director (a la Ava Duvernary’s “Queen Sugar”), which provided us with a sorely needed bright spot during the horror show that was 2020.
Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure many of us have known folks like the characters on “P-Valley” in real life, we’ve actually never seen them on the small screen…until now. While they may live on the margins of society, don’t ever count them out. They handled their business throughout the season and did their dirt in dimly lit spaces built to hold their secrets. These sex workers, mostly Black women seen gloriously through a sharp, crystal-clear female gaze, are never objectified. Instead, they are revered and honored for their beauty, their impossible physical and emotional strength, and their untouchable fucking magic. Even better: As viewers, we see ourselves in their hustle and grit as they allow themselves to be vulnerable in those quiet moments when nobody is watching.
For Hall to tell this story, she had to strip herself of respectability politics and go back to her beginnings, telling ELLE.com:
First, I am a Black Southerner and wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Even though I went to those [universities] and understood all of these politics, my Blackness and where I was from was never far from my mind. I never felt any shame about where and how I grew up. I am proud of where I came from. My grandmother was a sharecropper, and we used to live in a very impoverished neighborhood in Memphis, and we moved out to be in a “better” neighborhood. But every weekend, I went back to visit Big Momma. And I learned that no matter where I lived or where I went or if I spoke a certain way, I’m still Black. They are still gonna treat me like a nigga. So, I never felt that I had to put forward images that made people feel comfortable. And because I grew up on the fault line, I feel like it’s my responsibility to shake the table. Actually, shake the ground.
And shake the ground she does.
Perhaps the most revolutionary and overall badass character on “P-Valley” is Uncle Clifford (pronouns: she/her), played brilliantly by Nicco Annan. She’s the non-binary, gender-fluid owner of The Pynk, a longstanding strip club that looks run-down and tired during the day but pulses with searing hot energy at night. Uncle Clifford is usually adorned in bold, glittery lewks, accessorized by long, acrylic nails, a thick beard, flowing hair and a gun, just in case. But what’s most interesting about Uncle Clifford is what’s happening underneath all of the glamorous costumes. Her ability to create a perfect harmony between her masculine and feminine sides makes her a study in self-assuredness. However, that truth doesn’t stop twinges of self-doubt and fear from bubbling to the surface as she finds herself in the early stages of a sweet, budding romance with hyper-masculine rapper Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson). Uncle Clifford’s wariness is palpable as she slowly opens up to Murda. And it’s clear that, regardless of the internal struggles Murda faces as he pursues Clifford and his music career, he’s truly seeing and appreciating her for who she is.
And then there is Mercedes (Brandee Evans). I can’t say enough about this character because I love her so much, and Evans is masterful in the role. Mercedes is everything: the best dancer at The Pynk, an athlete, a coach to young girls, a struggling entrepreneur, an emotionally abused daughter, a regretful estranged mother, that clutch friend you need when you’re in a jam, a fighter, the queen of snappy one-liners and someone who understands the value and limits of selling sex. She has an authenticity and a level of comfort with herself and her body that feels honest. She is a Black female character that we can all love and someone that we deserve.
The main characters of “P-Valley” are truly the heart and soul of this incredible show. They might be slightly damaged and taking life day by day, but they also take ownership of their own success and joy. Why settle for defeat when you can get up and dance instead? Like my girl Mercedes would say, “Where they do that at?”
More of Shani’s favorites:
Music: “Savage Mode II” 21 Savage & Metro Boomin
TV Show: “Little Fires Everywhere”
Personality: Stacey Abrams