Memphis-native and Oliver Award-winning playwright, Katori Hall is the talk of the town. Her new television series P-Valley was unleashed on Starz on July 12, 2020 and has taken the summer television lineup by storm. The series is an enduring saga of money, power, and respect; takes place in the Mississippi Delta in the fictional town of Chucalissa. Hall’s unique choice of writing style centers itself in the prophetic tradition of black southern folklore writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and is most importantly, written from a womanist perspective. Each character in the story bends the arc of the politics of respectability in black culture and exposes the complexities of human sexuality.
The most scintillating storyline of the series involves the taboo sexual relationship between the non-binary character Uncle Clifford, played by rising actor Nico Annan and straight local rapper and hustler Lil’ Murda, portrayed by J. Alphonse Nicholson. The mixed reaction from viewers has sparked a firestorm of controversy on social media concerning ideals of black masculinity and how those perceptions shape and influence public opinion. In real life, both Uncle Clifford and Lil’ Murda are caricatures of black popular culture that exists in the minds of the mainstream population. On one hand, genderqueer Uncle Clifford is familiar to the audience and is largely accepted for her flamboyant personality and acute sense of women’s fashion. On the other hand, Lil’ Murda is vehemently rejected. Lil’ Murda’s persona represents heteronormative thug appeal; he is hyper masculine, very attractive and has the respect of everyone around the town of Chucalissa. In Episode 1: Perpetratin’, Katori Hall takes us into unchartered territory on television in P-Valley by normalizing eroticism between a straight and gay male.
From the moment of Lil’ Murda and Uncle Clifford’s first encounter, there is an element of danger that we in the LGBTQIA community sense. In Episode 2: Scars, Lil’ Murda breaks in Uncle Clifford’s car to discuss their previous arrangement to play his music in the club. Uncle Clifford pleads with him to go ahead and kill her and get it over with. According to the Human Rights Campaign, in 2019 there were 27 murders of non-binary and transgender people in the United States reported, majority of whom were African American. Could Uncle Clifford’s insecurities about pursuing a romantic love interest be a result of unchecked trauma and violence perpetuated against gay and lesbian people? Nico Annan stated in an interview with TV Guide that playing the role of Uncle Clifford caused him to check over his own prejudices and assumptions about how this relationship would unfold. Annan stated: “I realized how conditioned I had been as a gay man.”
Club Pynk is a space reserved for heterosexual men to gather for entertainment. Despite her proprietorship, Uncle Clifford enters that private space and disrupts societal norms by engaging in a romantic relationship with a man who is largely desired by women. This is a forbidden liaison. The sex scene set into motion a huge public debate on its appropriateness. Katori Hall took to Twitter on August 2, 2020 to state her position: “I knew splicing the scene of Mississippi’s dance with the Uncle Clifford and Lil Murda’s sex scene was going to be divisive. Homophobia is rampant in our community. P-Valley is a show that honestly explores the sexuality of ALL black people.”
In Episode 4: The Trap, Pico confronts Lil’ Murda about rumors floating around that he is gay, which results in a huge brawl and a loss of friendship. Straight men like Lil’ Murda are often silenced and made to feel ashamed for being attracted to effeminate men and transgender women. On Monday, August 19, 2019 Marcus “Reese” Willoughby of Philadelphia, PA committed suicide after an onslaught of violent transphobic bullying over Twitter for dating a transgender woman. Willoughby stated: Y’all can say whatever about Faith I really don’t care if she not passable I don’t care if she wasn’t born a woman she is a woman to me & I love her flaws that’s what makes her Faith if you heard her story it’s motivating….. I’m happy you should be happy for me.”
We are faced with the question: who is worthy of love? In Episode 5: Belly, Lil’ Murda offers to take Uncle Clifford on a date. Uncle Clifford replies: “You know good and goddam well you and me ain’t made for the outside. Where are you going to take me? You want to take me on a romantic walk down by the river? Well, the last two f—–s who did that found themselves floating up in it. You wanna take me to over to the Hot Wing Castle for that lemon pepper wet? Well the last two d—s who did that found their b——–s turned out by a train of truckers.” Uncle Clifford and Lil’ Murda are both deserving of love and the right to live out loud without fear of violence. Normalizing black gay love in public spaces is a revolutionary act within itself. Episode 6: Legacy was a breakthrough when Lil’ Murda is introduced to Uncle Clifford’s grandmother Ernestine, played by Loretta Devine. This episode affirms family love and acceptance as a place of real healing that message needs to be seen and heard by mainstream audiences.
Somehow throughout all of the drama that has unfolded this season Lil’ Murda finds himself still trapped in the closet. In Episode 7: Last Call for Alcohol, we realize that people around town are beginning to suspect about Lil’ Murda’s relationship with Uncle Clifford. Both Keyshawn and Woody express genuine concern for Lemarcus aka Lil’ Murda by warning him to protect his reputation. Woody reveals to him that he caught Lil’ Murda down by the river with Uncle Clifford. He even goes as far as to question Lil’ Murda by stating: “I thought this was a one-time thing? I don’t get it. You have all these women throwing themselves at you…you are around here rolling in the bushes and done caught feelings for a f—-?” LBGT Celebrities often have a much more difficult journey revealing their sexuality to mainstream audiences. The show resonates in a very realistic way. Legendary So So Def rapper and radio personality Da Brat, is one glaring example of how we can stand in our own truths. On March 26, 2020 she revealed to the public that she is engaged to be married to Jesseca Dupart. She wrote on IG: “Needless to say… I’ve always been a kind of private person until I met my heart’s match who handles some things differently than I do. I have never experienced this feeling. It’s so overwhelming that often I find myself in a daze hoping to never get pinched to see if it’s real so I can live in this dream forever.”
P-Valley was renewed for a second season, so this story is far from over. The outcome of Lil’ Murda and Uncle Clifford’s relationship remains a mystery to us all. Whether or not their romance withstands the test of time in the series remains to be seen. Katori Hall has done something unprecedented on television by merging all spectrums of the black love together in one story. We love to see it.