A 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes for the first season.
Playwright and showrunner Katori Hall has rendered her Pussy Valley play into a charismatic and au courant small-screen smash called P-Valley that has become a neon-bright spot in the dimmed, unchartered “quarantainment” era. As the sports world gradually remodels its product in 2020 D.C. (during coronavirus), P-Valley is pulling a rope-a-dope and displaying an air of athleticism all its own with characters who are just as agile in their personal matters as they are on stage. Under the purple-pink gradient team colors, Mercedes (Brandee Evans) is The Pynk’s all-star while Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) coaches — and the cheers from club patrons and home audiences rival that of any touchdown or buzzer-beater.
P-Valley portrays a spirited southern-fried kinship, and what lies beneath the lighting effects and thumping music is a history worth exploring, one that forges a deeper connection between these characters and their story and also adds extra value to the show’s glittery and authentic allure. Though P-Valley is shot in Atlanta (at Tyler Perry Studios) and based in Mississippi — Hall is a Memphis native, and the nomenclature of locations in the drama is nothing short of a Bluff City history lesson.
Here are three places in the Starz groundbreaker that non-locals should know about, and they serve as a sort of omniscient prologue to these characters’ motivations. Once studied, these backgrounds garner a deeper appreciation for the intricate storytelling in the valley where the girls get naked.
P-Valley’s fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi, ripe with coercion, corruption, and coin-chasing, borrows its name from more humble and less nefarious beginnings.
Chucalissa is a prehistoric and now-archaeological and museum site located in Memphis, TN, that was once inhabited by the Mississippian Culture Native American civilization. These Native American people, referred to as mound builders, constructed large earthen mounds on which ceremonial temples and houses for the rulers were built, while villagers lived and worked in the surrounding valleys. Black members of the Civilian Conservation Corps discovered Native artifacts in 1938 during excavation for a swimming pool at T.O. Fuller State Park, the black counterpart to the Jim Crow era whites-only Shelby Farms Park to the north.
In P-Valley’s “Higher Ground” episode, a diner patron offers Hailey (Elarica Johnson) and Andre (Parker Sawyers) an oral history of the mounds in full ghost-story fashion. Later when the couple meets atop the mound that overlooks the city of Chucalissa, Andre, a lawyer and proxy for the town “rulers,” pleads a case for the benefits of a tentative casino. Meanwhile, Hailey ponders the consequences the overbearing project may have on the lives of the common folk — and the scene is allegorical of the constant socioeconomic tug-of-war between the haves and the have-nots. For P-Valley, the name Chucalissa is also an Easter egg of sorts: in the Choctaw language, the word means “abandoned house” — a fate that The Pynk hopes to shake free from.
2. Hurt Village
In episode four of season one, Mercedes’ friend Mane (Thomas Q. Jones) mentions that “these Hurt Village Hustlers don’t know how to follow code” during a tense exchange with local rapper Lil’ Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson). The rapper confirms his Hurt Village heritage in the season one finale, and the reference is both a nod to a notorious Memphis housing project and P-Valley creator Katori Hall’s 2012 stage play.
In 1912, a Mississippi River flood ravaged the lively and diverse Greenlaw neighborhood in downtown Memphis. Prominent businesses and families fled the area — effectively stripping the neighborhood of its sociopolitical clout in the city. Subsequently, residential properties were repurposed for more cost-efficient, blue-collar friendly housing like apartments and rooming houses. But after the Great Depression and during World War II, the lower property values and geography of Greenlaw was once again an attractive destination for industrial real estate, and developers like Philip Belz (of Belz Enterprises fame) built plants for powerhouses like General Electric, General Motors and Kroger. Black workers also flocked to the area — along with bars and nightclubs to accommodate the new population. But when the Federal Housing Administration was established in 1934, the guidelines for property appraisal made clear in its underwriting manual that mixed-race communities were an “adverse influence” on “relative economic stability” and would result in lower property values.
Memphis officials responded to the federal practices of redlining by following New York in establishing the country’s second local housing authority and constructing racially segregated housing projects.
Two of the first projects built in Memphis (and in the country) were Dixie Homes for blacks and Lauderdale Courts for whites in the Greenlaw neighborhood (once home to Elvis Presley and his family). To attract more white families to the area, the Memphis Housing Authority built the all-white Hurt Village several years later.
But the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel several blocks from the neighborhood prompted another white flight from the area amid rising racial tensions and civil unrest. In the ensuing years, black families in need of affordable housing moved into Hurt Village while city support for and upkeep of the housing projects dissipated. And apartments like Hurt Village suffered a similar fate as other projects in Memphis and the country — deteriorating into squalid remnants of one of the federal government’s failed New Deal programs.
In 2000, Memphis received a $35 million Hope VI Grant to demolish and revitalize Hurt Village and the entire Greenalaw — and the neighborhood eventually transformed into Uptown Memphis. This is the setting for Hall’s 2012 play Hurt Village: stuck in literal and figurative limbo, 13-year-old aspiring rapper Cookie and her family await the city’s aid in relocation while struggling to materialize an American dream amidst an African American reality.
Though the Hurt Village grounds have been washed over with brightly painted mixed-income and single family homes, its legend survives in the streets through 90s-era lo-fi 3-6 Mafia records and backyard barbecue stories.
1. The Real P-Valley
A burning question among fans is if P-Valley is (or was) a real place. The short answer is an unflashy and grimier yes. And an elaboration on its origin is a reminder of Hall’s penchant for recouping feminine agency on the screen (and stage) and her ability to make palpable the stories of Memphis hood lore.
Fairway Manor, a 96-unit multi-family and elderly community, blankets the land once occupied by one of the most fabled dilapidated monuments of failed Memphis public housing. Demolished in 2007 — a few years after the Great Relocation of project residents in the early 2000s — the property at 62 West Fairway in south Memphis was previously known as L.M. Graves Manor on paper and Pussy Valley, P-Valley or simply PV in the streets.
Patriarchal legend has it that P-Valley was called so because of the promiscuity of the women that lived at the complex. While the sexual exploits of those women are an unquantifiable gross generalization, a more plausible explanation is the density of the apartment’s female tenancy.
Single mothers swelled the ranks of Section 8 housing in the 90s as one of many symptomatic consequences of the neglected post-Emancipation-era social ills of Black America. As African American hardships like racism and housing discrimination remained unresolved in the late 20th century, political initiatives like the racially lopsided War on Drugs in the 80s and the 1994 crime bill both served platters of black males to the prison-industrial complex — much to the disservice of seam-ripped black families. So the nickname that was once used to objectify a group of women can be interpreted as a stark reminder of the perpetual system of marginalization and federal-level segregation to the point that an apartment complex became infamous for its corral of single black mothers needing government assistance.
But like many of Hall’s works, P-Valley does not sulk over its internal or external circumstances, including the largely unknown history of its namesake. Instead, the characters reclaim and exert power — especially over the prejudiced and stereotypical narratives that almost feel like a tangible antagonist lurking in the shadows. With that, P-Valley is proving to be a formidable showcase of feminine energy, draped in a Clark Kent-like disguise of glitz and glitter, determined to shed neon light onto an otherwise dark and voiceless valley.