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Playwright Katori Hall Discusses Evocative New Starz Show, 'P-Valley'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

"P-Valley," a new show on Starz, takes place in a strip club, Pynk. But this club is about more than just pole-dancing. Pynk serves as a watering hole for its community based in the Mississippi Delta. It's a community that showrunner Katori Hall knows well, growing up in Memphis.

KATORI HALL: I have been that woman who was throwing dollars at the club.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Katori Hall is an Olivier Award-winning playwright, and "P-Valley" is adapted from a play she wrote about a place that's more complex than its reputation.

HALL: What's very interesting in a Southern strip club is that pole-dancing is like a Cirque du Soleil-esque experience. It's a theatrical experience and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Athletic.

HALL: Beyond athletic. It was art.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, you actually capture that really well. When some of the characters are dancing, you take away the music and the noise, and all we hear is the exertion, you know, of how hard they're working and just this absolutely amazing presentation that is not just about displaying themselves but about really what you say - art form.

HALL: Absolutely. In Episode 1, Mercedes, who's the headliner of the club - we see her climbing up on the pole. She goes to the tippy-top. It's two stories up. And she flips herself upside down, and you hear the - her grunting. You hear her breathing. You hear the squeak of her skin against that metal pole. And all of that was sound design because we really wanted to place the audience, you know, inside her perspective. But we also wanted the audience to understand that it's hard work (laughter). Like, you're going to be breathing real heavy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

HALL: It's like you just ran a marathon. And I thought we were, like, really successful at showcasing that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand you spent nearly a decade going to strip clubs all over the country...

HALL: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...And interviewing women. You even spent your 30th birthday at the Sin City Bronx locker room.

HALL: I did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did you learn from those conversations?

HALL: The thing that enlightened me the most was, you know, obviously, there's this assumption that the strip club is an exploitative space, and it is. It is a reflection of patriarchy - the fact that you have women participating in the sexualization of themselves. However, I was always amazed at how so many were able to find a space of liberation for themselves, whether it was economical, whether it was social.

Like, I always remind people that Cardi B, this stripper-turned-rapper - like, she always says that stripping saved her life. Like, she was able to stack enough paper to move out of an apartment that she shared with an abusive boyfriend. And so I always knew that liberation and exploitation dances cheek to cheek in the strip club.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I read in the making of this show that some executives suggested you show less nudity, which I thought was really interesting for a show about a club.

HALL: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you walk that line of avoiding the exploitation of these women...

HALL: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...But also being authentic?

HALL: Yeah. Number one, I reminded them that this is a show set in a strip club, so...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

HALL: ...Women will be stripping.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just in that tone of voice (laughter).

HALL: Absolutely (laughter). Absolutely. And I think I know where that was coming from. It's because there's been this long history of hypersexualized images in the media, specifically of Black women. And so they were being sensitive. But I am hypersensitive to that as a Black woman. And so we talked a lot about framing and how we were going to not always, you know, linger on breasts. We were going to appreciate a woman's body, of course. We want to celebrate a woman's body. But we were going to be much more interested in what a woman's body could do.

We just really wanted to make sure that people were experiencing this world through their eyes, through their gaze, because the female gaze was so important to this show. And I really think we were successful on a lot of levels. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that we had an all-female directing team pulling this - you know, this huge truck toward - in the same direction together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mention this fact that it's not only women in front of the camera but women of color behind the camera, too. Do you think that's a model for this moment that we're in right now when there's so much discussion about representation?

HALL: I definitely think it should always - I don't - like, I don't know why it's so hard for people to see what women as creators and as filmmakers and as writers can bring to the table. It seems like it's special, you know, when we decide to bring in all-female directing teams. But I actually just think that we're doing what should be being done anyway. And it's really on the people who are still in power to start opening up their eyes and changing their hiring practices.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think you're going to get to a place where you can have this discussion and it not be about pushing boundaries or making a statement, and it's just about, this is a show about this, and that's it?

HALL: I think I get a little frustrated that, you know, I - oftentimes, you know, you get put on the hot seat. And you - you're like, talk about diversity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

HALL: Talk about inclusion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's what I mean.

HALL: It's like, well, I'm including people. I don't...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

HALL: Like, don't ask me that question.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, it's 'cause you're doing the work. You're actually...

HALL: I'm already doing it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

HALL: Exactly. Exactly. And so do - I don't know if we'll ever get to a moment where everything feels like it's equal. You know, diversity is not equality. Like, we have to think about really giving equal opportunities to people who are deserving. And it's just so unfortunate that folks of color, women, queer folk - they've just been cast to the wayside a lot when it comes to opportunities in Hollywood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've also been tweeting a lot in support of the protests and Black Lives Matter. But many have criticized the Black Lives Matter movement for not putting in the same work to advocate for Black women. Of course, I'm thinking of Breonna Taylor, who was killed on March 13. Those officers have still not been arrested in that case. How do you see this show's premiere fitting into that conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement?

HALL: I love the fact that this is a platform to talk about that intersectionality of identity of being a Black woman. I think it really highlights how vulnerable we have been, how there is a history of people not protecting us, not caring about us. And so I feel as though this particular story really arrives at a time where we can kind of stand back and think about those intersectional points. And if we could create this moment on a Sunday night where you care about a Black woman who's, you know, the opposite of you in terms of identity but you can see yourself in her, I think we've done quite a lot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Katori Hall is the showrunner and creator of "P-Valley," which premieres on Starz today.

Thank you so much.

HALL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "BLURRED BONOBO REMIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.