‘P-Valley’ and the Black Lives Behind Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization

“We felt it our responsibility to depict the war on Black women’s bodies raging in this conservative state,” said Katori Hall, creator of Starz’s P-Valley.

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P-Valley, a drama from Starz, is set in the fictional strip club The Pynk in the Mississippi Delta. (Starz)

Memphis native and award-winning playwright Katori Hall has a way with words. So, it is a great privilege to witness her expert wordsmithing and showmanship as the showrunner for Starz’s critically acclaimed P-Valley, a series that follows the lives of those who work for, in, and around the strip club joint The Pynk, an oasis of fun, pleasure and complicated sex work in the fictional town of Chucalissa, Miss.

If the first season traded on the titillation of women’s bodies and acrobatic dance skills in stilettos and on poles, the second season has made room for the sober realities of life on the margins for sex workers, poor and working-class women, queer and nonbinary men and women and others surviving and thriving with dreams and longing. As expected, these lives can be sexy, messy and always a testimony to the beauty of Black lives that matter.

It is within this context that Hall rips through the legal and political battles of our current events to depict a very human face behind the recent Supreme Court decision of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade and subsequently removed federal protections of the legal right to an abortion, now an issue decided by individual states. 

The episode, “Jackson,” which aired on July 24, follows Mercedes (Brandee Evans), one of Pynk’s headline dancers, who takes her 14-year-old daughter Terricka (played by Azaria Carter) on a road trip to the state capital for a “consultation” about her pregnancy. At the time the episode was written and filmed, the unnamed clinic visited—Jackson Women’s Health Organization (also known as the “Pink House”)—was the last abortion clinic in the state, which gave patients a small window of opportunity (15 weeks) to make a choice about terminating pregnancy.

The goal is not to escape hellfire but to walk through that fire with the ones you love—as Mercedes did, walking through a wall of anti-abortion protesters with her daughter at the last abortion clinic of Mississippi. … A choice made in fiction has now been stripped by the state in reality. 

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The Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson, Miss., was the only abortion clinic in the state. It closed its doors on July 6, 2022. (Montinique Monroe / Ms. magazine)

In the storyline, Terricka is right on the cusp. Since the Supreme Court decision, the clinic closed its doors on July 6, 2022—a bitter reminder that the poignant choice Terricka makes in fiction, in which her mother allows her to take the keys to her car and make a choice to drive straight back home to Chucalissa or make a right turn to Jackson for her appointment (she chooses the latter), has now been taken away for so many young Black girls in the same predicament. The irony is that Mercedes, who was forced by her own mother to have Terricka at 15, was adamant in giving her daughter a choice she felt she did not have. A choice made in fiction has now been stripped by the state in reality. 

As Hall expressed in a recent op-ed:

“We searched for a way to tell a story about the limited and restrictive reproductive rights in Mississippi, which was one of only five states with just one abortion clinic. We felt it our responsibility to depict the war on Black women’s bodies raging in this conservative state.”

The episode not only explores this restrictive right within a fraught mother-daughter relationship battling intergenerational trauma, but it also expertly interweaves the subject of Black maternal health and the dangers faced for Black women facing childbirth. Mercedes name-checks tennis champion Serena Williams and pop star Beyonce as examples of privileged Black womanhood still struggling for their maternal healthcare, much less Black women and girls who are far more disadvantaged. 

Just as critical is the engagement with popular culture and Black female sexuality, as Mercedes confronts the fact that her daughter knows all the explicit lyrics to Cardi B and Meg Thee Stallion’s “WAP” but does not even know how many weeks she is in her pregnancy. When Terricka challenges that her mother has only given her one piece of information about sex – “keep your legs closed” – Mercedes, whose livelihood hinges on adult entertainment, must reckon with her own inadequacies in preparing her daughter for the realities of life, as well as the intergenerational pain of motherhood that instills sexual shame and lack of sexual agency. In a flashback, Mercedes remembers her religiously hustling mother’s conflicting messages in encouraging her teenage daughter to show off her curves to grown men to get a free meal while, in the next breath, the same daughter is beaten in a public restaurant for carrying condoms in her purse. 

If you’re in hell, I’ll be right there with you.

—Mercedes, ‘P-Valley’

Hall notes in her op-ed that Mississippi has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, and we are given a glimpse of the sexual ignorance that often abounds among this demographic, as demonstrated through Terricka’s fear that having an abortion will “give her cancer.”

Of course, after the termination, Terricka develops a different fear stemming from the church politics that Mercedes’s mother exploits so skillfully and lucratively. Terricka asks her mother: “Am I going to burn in hell for this?”

Mercedes, rather than reassure her daughter that she will not burn in hell (or in a more secular approach, insist there is no hell), simply tells her: “If you’re in hell, I’ll be right there with you.” 

That this response elicits a smile from Terricka is a testament to how P-Valley operates from a far more radical theology than right-wing Christianity, religious choices that some Black Southerners syncretize in a sacred-secular embrace. P-Valley has shown throughout its series alternative spiritualities—from the hoodoo and root work of bouncer Diamond (played by Tyler Lepley), to Pynk owner Uncle Clifford (played by Nicco Annan) declaring the strip club as part of a deeper ancestral legacy in which local artists like his grandmother Ernestine (the great Loretta Devine) could open their mouths “to usher in Heaven and Hell.”

The episode of “Jackson” includes a side story in which Ernestine, presumably dying of COVID-19, makes her way to the Mississippi River, preparing for her last rites. In her ever subversive approach to storytelling, Hall fuses the story with a Black feminist consciousness, in which queer men and nonbinary individuals like aspiring rapper Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson) and Uncle Clifford are caregivers to the elders, with Lil Murda literally baptizing Ernestine in a crossover ritual. Hall has described Lil Murda as a “death doula,” having already ushered his homie/lover Big Teak (John Clarence Stewart) to the other side in the previous episode, “Savage.” 

In the theological tradition of what scholar Thomas F. Marvin identifies as “preaching the blues,” P-Valley subverts the prosperity gospel of greed and consumerism with the radical theologies of suffering and salvation as expressed through sexual healing (which Lil Murda and Uncle Clifford provide for each other) and communal support, both in the mother-daughter relationship of Mercedes and Terricka, and in another subplot featuring Pynk co-owner Autumn Night/Hailey Colton (played by Elarica Johnson) providing a burner phone—and potentially a lifeline—to fellow dancer Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton) trapped in an abusive relationship. The goal is not to escape hellfire but to walk through that fire with the ones you love—as Mercedes did, walking through a wall of anti-abortion protesters with her daughter at the last abortion clinic of Mississippi, finally closed by a post-Roe Supreme Court.

It’s an important lesson for all of us to learn as we walk through the literal and figurative fires of climate crises, political fallouts and legal battles over our very lives at this very moment. Ms. magazine has been keeping the spotlight on “Our Abortion Stories,” and Hall’s P-Valley has demonstrated how our entertainment and fiction can contribute to these much-needed narratives.  

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About

Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.