Not everyone has the opportunity or even desire to set foot inside a Black strip club in the South, but anyone who ventures into Starz' outstanding new drama P-Valley will see why these perceived dens of iniquity hold such an allure within the culture. An adaptation of playwright Katori Hall's play Pussy Valley, P-Valley blends the profane, the sacred, and the politics of the almighty dollar to tell sharp, wildly engrossing stories about Black women on the margins who use their bodies to keep families and whole communities afloat. It's also one of the year's best new shows.
P-Valley starts off with a mystery, an ultimatum, and a ticking clock. At the outset, a down-on-her-luck woman who calls herself Autumn (Elarica Johnson) almost literally washes up at The Pynk, a booty palace in a fictional town deep in the Mississippi Delta. Clearly running from some sort of sketchy past, Autumn slithers into The Pynk whereupon she meets the main mistress of the house, Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan). Uncle Clifford, a gender-bending, ball-busting boss who keeps The Pynk and its hoes in check with a flick of her acrylic nails, soon finds herself under duress. Financial troubles come to a sobering apex, and the main attraction Mercedes (Brandee Evans) is preparing to hang up her heels for good.
As the story unravels through these leads, the fictional world of Chucalissa, Mississippi, broadens, revealing a community of complex characters and forces of greedy gentrification looking to prey on the already downtrodden. In eight gritty, gorgeously shot episodes, P-Valley elevates the stories of people often deemed unworthy — poor Black people, country folk, non-binary individuals, and of course strippers — to show their full humanity, resilience, and tenderness.
All the actors deliver, and they're so good they're deceptive. Watching Brandee Evans, who was once an English teacher before an actor, it's easy to forget she is not a lifelong pole dancer; the athleticism she displays as she climbs the pole and performs mind-blowing acrobatic feats both conceal and betray unthinkable hours of hard work and preparation. Same for actor Shannon Thornton, who plays a stripper named Miss Mississippi and has a storyline that involves domestic abuse. Due to a turn of events I won't spoil here, her character goes from neophyte to star, and the level of jaw-dropping physicality performed here — captured magnificently by the show's all-female directors — must surely rival that of any Cirque du Soleil gymnast.
But it's Nicco Annan, who played Uncle Clifford in Katori Hall's original play, who may be the series' brightest light and biggest marvel. Equal parts masculine and feminine, Uncle Clifford plays enforcer, house mother, guardian angel, and gangster — sometimes all in the same scene — summoning Southern ghosts. Lots has been said about homophobia in the Black community, but Hall's character, informed by her own upbringing in the South and Annan's own research and experience as a gay man, presents a fresh point of view based in reality: a non-binary person who commands respect in a decidedly hetero universe. Many more important people populate this forest, but every soul feels specific and looked at with compassion. Perhaps we can blame it on Hall's history as an Oliver-award winning playwright, but the dialogue often soars to the point of lyrical, with players delivering lines that cause you to whimper in pain or cackle out loud.
P-Valley is an unadulterated, unfiltered work that pours light into a specific slice of the Black experience — one that, from the outset, may not seem particularly artful or elegant — and turns it into an achingly beautiful song. It shines a light on women who some might consider the "least of these," giving them agency, understanding, and love. Bring a stack of bills to throw at the screen.
TV Guide Rating: 5/5
P-Valley premieres Sunday, July 12 at 8/7c on Starz.