Katori Hall graduated from Columbia University in 2003 with a major in African-America Studies and Creative Writing, then graduated from Harvard University with a Master of Fine Arts in Acting shortly after. She then graduated from the Juilliard School’s playwriting program in 2009 before beginning to adapt her plays to the stage. She had a play, The Mountaintop, premiere in London in 2009 before moving to the West End. In September 2011, the play opened on Broadway.
Hall has recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play The Hot Wing King, a comedy-drama that explores Black masculinity and sexuality. Other plays by Hall include Hoodoo Love, Remembrance, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, and Pussy Valley. Pussy Valley was adapted for television and premiered on Starz as P-Valley in the summer of 2020, right in the middle of the global pandemic when many people were at home quarantining, allowing the show to find an audience quickly. Following the lives of the dancers and owner of the fictional strip club The Pynk, P-Valley instantly became a success. It was renewed for a second season only a couple of weeks after its premiere. Hall serves as creator and showrunner for the show and will even be directing an episode in the upcoming second season, filming now.
Hall sat down on Zoom with AwardsWatch to discuss P-Valley’s first season, the origins of the play and what she was able to expand by changing the format from play to television.
Katori Hall: How are you?
TD: I’m doing pretty good. I’m so excited to talk to you today.
KH: Oh, awesome. Where are you?
TD: I’m in Alabama. Where are you?
KH: Oh, I’m in Georgia. We’re in Atlanta beginning to film the second season.
TD: Oh, okay. So you’re not too far from me. How’s the humidity over there?
KH: It’s pretty tough. I think. Yeah, it just feels like hot, hot, hot. Some days it’s dry hot, but it rains a lot here, So the humidity is, it can be high.
TD: Yeah. It’s definitely has been hot over here after all that rain that we just had. So I wanted to start by, you just won a Pulitzer this week. Congratulations.
KH: Thank you!
TD: I wanted to start by asking you how that felt?
KH: Oh my gosh. I had no idea it was coming. I just, all of a sudden I just saw my phone and a lot of people were calling me and I was like, oh my goodness, like what’s happening? And my agent was just like, you just won a Pulitzer! I’m like, “Oh my God!” I just like screaming and running around the house. It was just one of those dreams come true. You just put it on your list of goals, but I’ve never thought that I would obtain it. So just feeling very blessed and happy about it all.
TD: Well, that’s awesome. Congratulations again. Congratulations on the success of P-Valley. It was my favorite show of last year. So I’m so excited to talk to you about it today.
KH: I appreciate that.
TD: Let me just start by asking you, what was the original idea for P-Valley? How did it come to you?
KH: Wow. I mean, what’s so crazy is that when I was coming of age in Memphis, Tennessee, I went to strip clubs all the time. The idea of strip club culture was just not foreign to me. I cannot tell you how many birthdays I’ve celebrated at the club. When we walked into those spaces, what we would see on the stage were just like these super she-roes, who were like more athletic than anything else. I never had a kind of denigrating view of the strip club.
So fast forward, I ended up taking a pole fitness class and it kind of snapped me back to those moments when I would like sneak it to the club. I’m like, these women are so strong. I decided in that moment after failing at my first pole fitness class to really delve into the lives of these women who chose this profession. I embarked on like a six year long journey in terms of interviewing people, working on a play version of the story and the play version ended up getting produced in 2015. So all of that, that long, long journey kind of led me to the TV show because I felt like the play needed to last forever or as long as it could. And so I think that the TV medium is the best form for this story.
TD: What was it like adapting your own play into a series?
KH: It’s really hard because I think a lot of people watch TV, but to actually create TV, people don’t understand just how you have to think about the long game. Serialized storytelling has so much to do with characters and not necessarily stories. It’s like your stories come out of your character. I really had to learn a whole different way of telling stories, there wasn’t a particular parenthesis. I had to think about a beginning and knowing that the end would come whenever it came. I kind of had to learn on the fly in terms of learning how to write a TV show and produce a TV show. It’s been a very challenging journey, but here we are our second season.
TD: So was it fun for you as a writer to be able to expand these characters in this world that you’ve created?
KH: Oh my God, it was just everything. Cause you know, the fact that it started out as a play, I learned very quickly when I saw the play it shouldn’t have been a play, it needed to be a TV show because the characters were so interesting, because I want it to know so much more about their backstory, because I wanted people to just have them in their living rooms or their bedrooms or whatever room they were in, for as long as they would have them. I just feel so lucky to be able to show all the different sides of all these different characters, because you know, in a movie or even in a play, you just get like a certain window into their lives. With this one, I get so many chances over the course of the season and hopefully over the course of multiple seasons.
TD: Did Starz approach you, or you did you approach Starz? How did that work?
KH: So at the time, I ended up going to LA, I had my agents set up meetings and so I would have pitch meetings. And so I went to basically every premium cable or streamer that I could. I knew that it wasn’t a show necessarily fit for broadcast. And Starz was actually the last place I pitched and right when I pitched it, I knew this may be the home because I could see the people on the other side of the table, their eyes were open instead of their eyes open in horror. There was some places you could tell that they were kind of clutching their pearls a little bit, but at Starz it just felt like such a natural home for the show. I was really grateful because oftentimes, particularly if you’re a first time showrunner, first time creator, most times they’ll put another showrunner with you or actually have someone show run over you. In this instance they were like, no, we think you could do it by yourself. Yes, we’ll give you help and you’ll have support, but this is your vision. This is your baby. You should shepherd it through this process from inception to development to actual TV show.
TD: It sounds like they gave you the creative control you needed.
TD: So is there anything that was in the play that you weren’t able to include in the show?
KH: Oh, that’s such a great question! I felt like number one, the strip club used to be called The Pink Pony, not The Pynk. There’s all already a strip club called The Pink Pony, that’s a franchise. They were like you can’t use our name. I was like, “I guess I can call it The Pynk, no one has a trademark over that.” That was one thing that changed, there’s a lot of storylines and some of the characters shifted like the character of Autumn Night used to be an elementary school teacher and then she was a journalist. Then in the TV version, she became a femme fatale. There were some things that shifted, but I will say the essence of, of it all has remained the same. This is a humanization project for women who are exotic dancers. In addition to that, it’s also a moment to see Black folk authentically, queer Black folk authentically, marginalized folk unapologetically. I really feel that we’ve been able to hit the bullseye in terms of like the uber goal or not only the story, but the entire series.
TD: Alternatively, is there anything that you were able to include in the show that you weren’t able to include in your play?
KH: Ooh, there’s a lot that I was able to say include in the show. Number one, even when I did the show, the play version, I hired women who either had taken pole fitness or had stepped into that space before. In a weird way, the TV version, you get to see the dance a whole lot more, get to get inside of the dance a lot more, in ways that we didn’t necessarily get a chance to in the play version. I’m super happy about that. Really happy to show, I would say dig a little bit more deeper into Uncle Clifford as a character. In the play version, I would say that it, the TV show focuses mostly on the women, both Uncle Clifford kind of being the momager of the club. I really think we got an opportunity in the TV version, just because you get — you have more hours, you have more real estate, to just spend more time on her and particularly in the second season, just kind of get to know a little bit more about her backstory and quite frankly, everybody’s backstory.
TD: I spoke to Brandee Evans earlier this year, and she’s told me that the all team of women directors made her feel comfortable as an actor. Was that your intention when setting up this team of directors?
KH: It’s interesting. I must say that I was open to hiring men, but when I asked the question of “what defines the female gaze for you?” I would say a lot of men had not engaged with that question in their own work. And so, because they hadn’t, the conversations that I had with the female directors just felt so much more in depth and thoughtful. They had actually already been considering how the female gaze impacted their work and how their own particular lived experience fed into how they defined that particular gaze, which to me is, centering the female experience and also being very aware of how past lensing has really detrimentally impacted how we view women. And so, because all the female directors had thought about it, I was like, okay, I should just go with the people who are already in their own work, doing it and are coming to the table knowing that we have to frame the nudity in a more respectful way. We have to talk to our actresses and think about how to, frame their bodies in a way that really focused on what their bodies can do and not necessarily on how their bodies look. Women just kind of rose to the top in the interview process. It was very easy to pick an all women team because they literally were the best people for the job.
TD: Are you able to tell me, will it be an all women team for season two?
KH: It will be an all women team for season two. We will have some people back and I’m even directing. It’s a really cool fusion of the old and the new.
TD: Well, that’s exciting. Congratulations. I’m excited to see what you bring to us.
KH: Thank you.
TD: Uncle Clifford is, I would say, already one of the great television characters, and one of the best LGBTQ characters we’ve seen in forever. It’s great non-binary representation. I know she was originally a trans woman. So I was going to ask you what went into the creation of Uncle Clifford for the play and how did you adapt her for the show?
KH: Absolutely. I’m so blessed in that Nicco Annan, who plays Uncle Clifford actually originated the role in the stage version. My development process, even before it got produced as a play, was to work with actors and kind of fit the role to their skin and to their tongue. I would say Uncle Clifford naturally has a lot of Nicco Annan-isms. Kind of baked into the way that she speaks, the way she interacts with all the customers and all the dancers that float through the club. And so, because I have such an amazing relationship with Nicco specifically, we just had so many conversations about who she needed to be and how we needed to kind of visually articulate her. One of the things that hasn’t changed ever from the play script, so now is that Uncle Clifford is very feminine and masculine in equal measure. While initially, I had written that Uncle Clifford was a trans woman. I felt like over time, Nicco is embodying the character. The fact that we did want to be very kind of honest and sensitive to the fact that, Uncle Clifford kind of exists in a space down south where she is just Uncle Clifford and the fact that Uncle as a part of her moniker, but yet she prefers the pronouns, she and her. It felt natural that over the course of time, she became non-binary versus trans, even though obviously, those two identities are linked. Definitely, we landed in that place over the course of time.
TD: This is your first TV show. And I wanted to ask you, how has it been navigating your position as showrunner while adapting your own material?
KH: I think in an odd way probably makes it a little bit easier because the showrunner has to come in and just be so clear about their vision and the fact that the vision that we were starting to bring from was mine. I think it really helped me transition. I never felt like I didn’t know what I was doing because I knew that the story that I was telling was my story and it was something that I had been working on for so long. Now, albeit a huge learning curve. I had to learn so much, I am still learning things. I still ask questions. I don’t know what that is. All the time to my line producer, [asking things like] “can you please explain to me what a lapse day is? I don’t know.” You know, and still to this day, I don’t know what that is, but I know it impacts money. So as long as y’all know, we good. It’s crazy what you don’t know. I think the key to being a successful showrunner is being honest about the fact that you don’t know everything. To hire people who are smarter than you, more experienced than you, and to learn from them. I think that has been the key for me. I learn very quickly and I often joke that I’ve only done one season of TV, but the stuff that I’ve learned over the course of my particular experience, it feels like I’ve run four TV shows. Just because the TV show that I’m running is just so difficult. The fact that it’s a huge cast and they’re doing like these amazing dances and the fact that the scripts are so rich, they have theater roots. They’re very dialogue driven and dialogue heavy. All of these things come into play and literally it’s sometimes feel what it feels like we are producing four shows at once, but it’s so satisfying to be able to do such just dense and thick and deep work with actors who were are quite frankly phenomenal.
TD: How does it feel to be able to tell such a rich stories of women, especially Black women?
KH: It is my mission statement. The fact that I get to wake up and come to this set and see reflections of me and my sisters and my cousins and my aunties and my mother on stage and eventually goes to the screen. It is soul quenching in the best way because I started out as an actress and I started out being so frustrated. I was frustrated that there wasn’t anything or felt like sometimes it wasn’t anything out there for me to play and step into the shoes of. I’m just so grateful that I’ve been able to contribute, whether it’s to the stage, to TV and hopefully one day to film, a different shade of what it means to be a Black woman in America, particularly a Black woman growing up in the American south.
TD: For my last question, I wanted to ask you: the music on this show was perfect. I listened to the Spotify playlist that features all the music all the time.
Katori Hall: Good!
TD: I wanted to ask you how much music did you listen to in preparation for that first season and how much music have you listened to in preparation for the second season that you’re doing now?
KH: I listened to thousands of songs and real talk, I have listened to millions of songs in my lifetime. A lot of the songs, particularly in the first season, are songs that I just grew up listening to, and I absolutely loved or they’re all artists who I grew up listening to, or they’re artists that I wanted other people to listen to. For example, I was really adamant about making sure that we combed the cracks and crevices of the south to find every black female Southern rapper that we could. S3nsi Molly to Megan Thee Stallion to Tay Money to Jucee Froot. We shined a light on a lot of women who were already coming up anyway, and it’s so beautiful that the show broke and a lot of these women’s careers kind of got steam right around the same.
TD: Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. P-Valley is like I said, my, one of my favorite shows. I loved it so much and I cannot wait to see season two. Good luck out there in the heat.
KH: Thank you. You too.
TD: Thank you.
KH: Awesome, we will talk soon.
Season one of P-Valley is available to stream on Starz. Katori Hall is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for the episode “Perpetratin’.”
Photo: Tina Rowden/STARZ Entertainment