A series revolving around a down and dirty strip club in the Mississippi Delta isn’t standard hit TV show fare. But Tony-nominated and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Katori Hall didn’t branch out from the stage to television to play by the rules. When her edgy TV series “P-Valley” debuted on Starz two years ago, circumstances were not ideal. The world was battling COVID plus social protests prompted by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery were erupting all over the nation. In Season 2, those real-world events figure prominently as the show deftly avoids a sophomore slump and rises to its occasion.
Although ostensibly about mysterious stranger Hailey/Autumn Knight (British actress Elarica Johnson) arriving in the small fictional town of Chucalissa and making ends meet as a stripper, it’s “P-Valley’s” initial surrounding players who catapulted the show to cult status. Nonbinary female-presenting Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), sporting a full beard with a face beat for the gods and a wardrobe amplifying her feminine nature, became the series’ breakout star, with gifted veteran or O.G. stripper Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and pretty newcomer Keyshawn aka Miss Mississippi (Shannon Thornton) following close behind.
In between running The Pynk and warding off Mayor Ruffin’s (Isaiah Washington) efforts to close it down, Uncle Clifford found potential romance with up-and-coming rapper Lil Murda (an excellent J. Alphonse Nicholson) that first season. Despite a carefully planned exit from stripping, Mercedes’ hypocritical bible-thumping mother Patrice (a scene-stealing Harriett D. Foy) brutally crushed her dreams of owning a gym and teaching young girls (including the daughter taken from her) dance more consistently. And though Keyshawn’s star was on the rise, her abusive relationship with her children’s father Derrick (Jordan Cox) threatened to ruin it and her life. “Murda Night,” which was supposed to solidify Lil Murda’s rap career, ended disastrously in a real murder involving Autumn and Mercedes while also straining Uncle Clifford’s romance with Lil Murda and Keyshawn’s potential love match with The Pynk’s security head Diamond (“The Have and the Have Nots” Tyler Lepley).
For its second season, “P-Valley” picks up with the fallout of that night in addition to the impact of the pandemic and the protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder. Autumn may have saved The Pynk from sale, but COVID or Miss Rona threatens to shut it down for good. In this new norm, Instagram has supported Keyshawn but life with Derrick and their two kids has intensified. Meanwhile, Diamond, who is interestingly revealed to be a “roots man” or shaman later, refuses to even talk to her. Challenges both personal and physical dog Mercedes. Even more dramatic, Autumn and Uncle Clifford clash over The Pynk, which she owns, but Uncle Clifford controls. And despite being cut off, Lil Murda is determined to win Uncle Clifford back, even as he embarks on a Southern tour in the pandemic with Keyshawn posing as his girlfriend which has its high points.
The mesmerizing pole routines, particularly by new strippers Roulette (“Snowfall’s” Gail Bean) and Whisper (Psalms Salazar), along with an upgraded music budget mixing Southern classics like Oscar winners and Memphis natives Three Six Mafia’s “Whoop That Trick” alongside songs like the show’s catchy “Down in the Valley” theme song from Memphis-based female rapper Jucee Froot, cannot go unmentioned.
Unlike the return of FX’s hit series “Atlanta,” which opted to leave the South for Europe and indulge mostly non-Southern storylines, Memphis native Hall, who adapted the series from her play “Pussy Valley” set in her hometown, doubles down on Black Southern and specifically “country” identity, languishing in what is often termed “improper” English, revealing the rhythm and beauty of Southern speech rarely captured on TV.
Of the many complex issues “P-Valley” tackles, its LGBTQ storyline exploring not just what it means for Black men in the South to own and claim their identity but also how that plays out in a music industry and a genre notorious for rejecting that might be its most compelling. And this season, Hall, the show’s showrunner and main writer, further ups the ante, delving more deeply into Lil Murda and Uncle Clifford’s longing for each other in a deep South Bible Belt where homosexual love has traditionally been framed as an abomination against God.
With Big Teak (John Clarence Stewart), Lil Murda’s friend from prison, working as his tour security, “P-Valley” expands its exploration of masculinity, sexuality, and loyalty in life and music even as an appearance by bounce music star and LGBTQ trailblazer Big Freedia serves as a not-so-subtle reminder that gay men in Southern rap are not new. In another twist, the show also highlights a sexual awakening with one of its beloved female stars.
The show’s exploration of colorism and how societal and cultural preferences for Black women with light skin has diminished Keyshawn’s self-worth and that of other young Black girls with darker skin is groundbreaking television. Its ability to deeply probe and analyze issues surrounding homosexuality, colorism, feminism, and racism, which it does partly through the pandemic, the social protests, and The Pynk’s one-time stripper Gidget (Skylar Joy) who is white, on the average person’s level, giving a voice to groups TV and society routinely marginalize, invites comparisons to “The Wire” and truly makes “P-Valley” stand out.
Free from the uncertainty and unevenness that sometimes plagued the first season, Hall’s “P-Valley” proves that it’s more than a strip club spectacle. Instead, she makes room for Black Southern representation where dignity and respect rule regardless of how from the bottom you come. Hopefully, it’s a blueprint others will follow.
P-Valley Season 2 premiered on June 3 and regularly runs Sunday nights on Starz.