In Katori Hall's drama P-Valley, the strippers working the pole are also complicated women with vivid lives.

By Kristen Baldwin
July 06, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Jessica Miglio/Starz

Hollywood generally lumps onscreen strippers into three categories: soul-broken victims, fur-draped divas, or dead-eyed set dressing. On P-Valley — an intricate, Southern-gothic-style saga based on Katori Hall’s 2015 play P---y Valley — the women on stage are people first, with vivid and complicated lives. But man, do they know how to work that pole.

Fleeing a violent past and a Mississippi Delta flood, Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson) arrives in the run-down city of Chucalissa with a pocketful of stolen IDs and a name made for the stage. She lands a job at the Pynk, a local strip-club institution run by Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan, who originated the role on stage), a brazen, nonbinary house mother who keeps the dancers in line with her sharp tongue and stern-yet-saucy demeanor. (Uncle Clifford prefers female pronouns, y’all.) The light-skinned Autumn gets a chilly welcome from the Pynk’s “OG” stripper, Mercedes (the stellar Brandee Evans), who bristles when Clifford orders her to mentor the “high-yella” newbie on her first night.

But Mercedes isn’t long for the Pynk; after seven years, she’s finally saved up enough money to retire from stripping and open a gym for the majorette dance team she coaches on the side. Everyone on P-Valley (premiering Sunday on Starz) aspires to more: Mayor Tydell Ruffin (Isaiah Washington, boasting gold teeth and a drawl thicker’n Mississippi mud) and his lawyer godson Andre (Parker Sawyers) are scheming to open a casino in cash-strapped Chucalissa, unbeknownst to the “Bible-thumpers” on the city council. (Complicating matters, they plan to build the Promised Land Casino and Resort right over the Pynk.) Clifford falls for a local rapper wannabe named Lil’ Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), who keeps pushing the Pynk to play his latest track. And Mercedes’ religious mom, Patrice (Harriett D. Foy), who decries her daughter’s profession but happily accepts her “booty money” tithes, longs for a chance to preach from the pulpit at church.

Jessica Miglio/ Starz

With its broad slate of characters and multiple interlocking story lines about race, class, and gender, P-Valley seems better suited for the expanse of television than the boundaries of the stage. (The 2015 production, which received solid reviews, had a three-hour run time.) The plotting is convoluted at times, and the ongoing hints about Autumn’s traumatic past feel unnecessarily vague. But Hall’s characters and the cast — especially Evans and Annan — are vibrant and compelling. A crafty twist in episode 4 involving Mercedes and her mother, meanwhile, could send the second half of the season in a variety of promising directions.

All eight episodes of P-Valley are directed by women, and the pole-dancing scenes are presented as breathtaking feats of athleticism rather than titillating teases. In one arresting sequence in the premiere, Mercedes climbs to the top of the pole during a performance, leaving the audience far below out of frame. The sound of the crowd drops out, and for a few seconds all we hear is Mercedes’ breath, fast with exertion, and the clomp of her platform heels on the ceiling. “Stripping is blasphemous!” Patrice scolds, confronting her daughter in the Pynk’s parking lot after her set. But that night, Mercedes leaves the club with two plastic shopping bags full of cash — more “booty money” for the church collection plate — secure in the knowledge that on stage, she’s a god. Grade: B

P-Valley premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Starz

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