Playwright Katori Hall chats about Atlanta-filmed P-Valley, strip club wings, and representation

"People did not expect a show about strippers to be as complex, thoughtful, and celebrated."

Katori Hall
Katori Hall

Photograph by Diane Zhao

When playwright Katori Hall was pitching her breakout hit Starz series P-Valley, several network executives passed on the idea before she could even say one word. They assumed the hour-long drama, adapted from her 2015 play about the people in and around a strip club in the Mississippi Delta, was a story that didn’t matter.

Hall begged to differ. P-Valley was much more than scantily clad Black women sliding down a pole. It’s a space for the Ivy League-trained dramatist to tell unapologetic, dynamic, and nuanced stories about marginalized voices within the Black community for Black audiences.

The Memphis native took six years to research, interview, and connect with over 40 strippers. She intentionally hired all women directors, strippers, and a majority women crew for each episode. She searched far and wide until she could wrangle some slappin’ Southern fried twerk songs by underground [female] acts for the soundtrack. And three episodes into P-Valley’s eight-episode order, the first-time showrunner, creator, and executive producer was given a second season.

Hall’s previous works, including Hurt Village, Hoodoo Love, Saturday Night Sunday Morning and The Blood Quilt, intersect themes around family, geography, race, class, gender, politics, love, faith, and sexuality. The Olivier Award winner soared to Broadway with both the MLK-themed play The Mountaintop in 2011 and the jukebox musical Tina—The Tina Turner Musical in 2019.

With theater indefinitely due to the pandemic, Hall has recently pivoted into the early stages of adapting her current stage play, The Hot Wing King, for television. She shared some laughs over the phone about going on a typical outing with her to strip clubs in Atlanta, using theater as a vehicle for change, P-Valley’s success and ties to Atlanta, and what Ryan Murphy’s director program taught her about making television.

How did you respond to the news that P-Valley is returning for season two?
I just feel vindicated. People did not expect a show about strippers to be as complex, thoughtful, and celebrated. I was just so happy for the audience that came out to view and support the show. It really shows it’s a necessary story, and we did this world and these women justice. Even before I landed at Starz with the pitch, there were networks that refused to even hear it because of assumptions about these women, and they didn’t think much of a show like this.

P-Valley Starz
A still from P-Valley

Photograph courtesy of Starz

How does the culture of Atlanta fit into P-Valley?
I was so overjoyed that we were able to shoot in Atlanta. We wanted to shoot in the South so it could feel very authentic, so we shot Atlanta for Mississippi. We really found a lot of places that had the same visual qualities. Chucalissa, Mississippi, is a town struggling to become a city but still is dealing with urban plight and inheritance of oppression and racism. Unfortunately, you can still find those spots in and right outside of Atlanta. A lot of the exterior locations, specifically in episode two, we shot around East Point. I was really grateful that we were able to be here in the Atlanta community to work with Atlanta-based, Black-owned businesses in terms of craft services. Most of the team, particularly our production heads, are of color: a lot of them women. That was a dream for me to be able to be back in the South ‘cause I’m from Memphis. When I’m talking about, “I want some flats,” people know what I’m talkin’ about. [And] it was exciting because we were shooting at Tyler Perry Studios.

What strip clubs did you hit while making P-Valley?
Oh wow. A lot. Magic City, of course. As a matter of fact, our core background dancers dance at Magic City. I hit up Peaches, Gold Rush, Rumors, and Strokers. I even went out to the Pink Pony, but that was different [laughs]. I’m sure there’s a few I’m forgetting . . . oh, Blue Flame and Follie’s!

What does a night out at the strip club with you look like?
You know we going get all kinds of hot wings. I’m weird. Not everybody likes lemon pepper dry, but it’s something about the freshly fried, crackly skin with the citrus and pepper. I like hot hot; I don’t do suicide because I ain’t finna die on nobody [laughs]. I love me some chicken tenders. People don’t realize strip clubs, particularly in Atlanta, are fine dining. Quite frankly, hot wings are fine dining. There’s a gourmet approach a lot of strip clubs take when it comes to doing their hot wings. We’d have some drinks. I’m a lightweight, so I’ll have midori sours while everybody else has their Patron.

What’s interesting is when I do go to clubs, it ends up being a conversation with the women that are dancing because I’m always so intrigued by who they are, why they chose their stage name, how long they’ve been doing it. I don’t really throw dollars at them; I throw questions just because that was always the mode I was in when I would come into that space. Time with me in the strip club is a lot of food and a lot of stories.

Could you share your experiences studying theater at various Ivy League schools as a Black woman from the South?
I didn’t have any family members that attended school in those places. [But] I never thought that I couldn’t attend Columbia, Harvard, and Julliard because my parents demanded excellence from me; they never allowed me to make B’s, so I got in the habit of becoming excellent. When I got into those institutions, it did not feel like I did not belong, but I’d be made fun of over how I spoke. I know I’m country, but city-country. I made a choice to embrace my Southerness and therefore embrace my Blackness when it came to how I was going to communicate in the world. By deciding to be an artist, that allowed me that freedom.

The moment I decided I was going to be a dramatist was when my teacher sent us to the library to get a play that had a scene for me and my scene partner’s type. We’re these two young Black women going into the Columbia University library, pulling down all of these plays, and we couldn’t find nothing. I mean nothing. I went back to our teacher and asked for suggestions for a scene involving two young Black women. She sat there; 10, 20, 40 seconds went by, and she could not think of one single play with one scene involving two Black women. That was the moment for me that I realized I was gonna have to write those plays; it was the foundation. I wrote my first play, Hoodoo Love, a year after that. I knew there was a scarcity of voices, specifically Black female voices. Once I graduated from Harvard, that’s when I focused more on my writing.

P-Valley Starz
A still from P-Valley

Photograph courtesy of Starz

Did landing two productions on Broadway [The Mountaintop and Tina] affect your confidence?
It doesn’t do much because it doesn’t help you write the next one [laughs]. Making it to Broadway twice is two feathers in my cap; that’s an achievement no matter who a person is. I’m proud, but it’s not the end-all-be-all for me. The unfortunate thing about theater is Broadway has not been successful in cultivating a Black audience. I was always very frustrated with having stories about Black folks and Black actors on-stage, but when they look out into the audience, they don’t see reflections of their own selves in the seats. So what TV does is allow me to reach the people I’ve been writing for much [more] easily, because TV is a much more accessible medium. That’s always been my goal; I’m writing for us, and these shows are written by us. My family doesn’t have to travel to New York City to see a show of mine. They can press a button on a Sunday night in their living room, and they are in the Pynk strip club with city-country people who talk and are just like them.

How did your participation in Ryan Murphy’s Half Foundation Directing Program better prepare you for your television debut?
They select mostly writers and directors of color, particularly women. They put us with whoever is directing a particular episode of one of Ryan’s shows, and we get to shadow them from the roota to the toota; from pre- to post-production. We get to really have an entry point into how episodic TV is produced and disseminated. The program was everything to me because I had never stepped foot on a set. I’d written one season for a show that unfortunately didn’t move forward.

I was assigned to Brad Buecker, the executive producer for American Horror Story. It was mind-blowing to me to use the power of pretend to tell the truth about the world with characters. I just loved walking on set, asking all of these questions, and figuring out the best way to do coverage with the director. I really got a close-up view with my own eyes of how a TV episode comes together. Seeing how the machine runs made me so confident when it came to me walking on my own set. A lot of times, you think you don’t belong in certain places.

P-Valley Starz
A still from P-Valley

Photograph courtesy of Starz

What does it mean going from not seeing yourself in those plays to now creating opportunities on and off camera for others like you with P-Valley?
It’s a blessing, and I don’t take it lightly. It’s also my responsibility as someone who has experienced an erasure of herself. I know what it feels like to not see nuance in how you’re portrayed. We’re showing that Black women can rule the world, move the culture, create something groundbreaking and unique together, and be successful in these positions of power. It dismantles that myth that Black women don’t belong at the table. The great thing is we’ve decided to make our own table, ‘cause these wings are the bomb. We’re in an amazing moment in our society where things are transforming. Storytelling can have a hand in making sure that we continue to push forth empathy for people who have been dehumanized or made to feel invisible. It’s time for so many voices to be heard and groups of people to be seen. P-Valley is a part of a revolution in that way. As long as I can keep doing that, I’m truly the happiest artist in the world.