Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Kaitlin Fontana

Promotional poster for P-VALLEY.

Kaitlin speaks with writer Katori Hall – the creator and showrunner of the Starz drama series P-VALLEY – about the show’s journey from theater to TV, the showrunner as changemaker, how creating a show is like climbing a pole, and much more.

Katori Hall is an acclaimed playwright whose stage credits include Hurt VillageTina; and The Mountaintop – a fictionalized account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night alive, for which she received the 2010 Olivier Award for Best Play.

P-VALLEY is an adaptation of Katori’s play Pussy Valley. The series centers on a strip club in the “Dirty Delta” of Mississippi and the people whose lives—and secrets—revolve around it. The show premiered on Starz in July 2020, and was recently renewed for a second season.

Read the Dear White American Theater letter here.

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. Seasons Four and Five of the podcast are hosted by Kaitlin Fontana. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Kaitlin Fontana: You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media discussing everything from pitching to production, from process to favorite lines and jokes, and everything in between.

Kaitlin Fontana: Katori Hall is the showrunner and creator of P-Valley on Starz. The series, based on her play Pussy Valley, centers on a strip club in the so-called Dirty Delta of Mississippi and the people whose lives and secrets revolve around it. As a playwright, Katori has won multiple awards, including the Olivier for best play in 2010 for The Mountaintop, which fictionalizes Martin Luther King Junior’s last night alive. Today, Katori and I talk about P-Valley’s journey from theater to TV, the showrunner as changemaker, and how creating a show is like climbing a pole. Hi, Katori. Thank you so much for being here.

Katori Hall: I’m happy to be here. Thank you.

Kaitlin Fontana: Well, first of all, congratulations on P-Valley. It’s such an exciting, fun, complex, beautiful show, and I’m so glad it’s something that I can watch right now while all of this is happening.

Katori Hall: Thank you. It’s been a journey. It’s been a 10 year long… actually, more than 10 years now. Jesus, it’s been a long time.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah, which we will dig into for sure. But first, I kind of wanted to talk to you a little bit about how you’ve been feeling about this period of time, the pandemic, the lockdown. Are you able to write? Are you able to be creative? What does your writing life look like right now?

Katori Hall: I have gotten no writing done, none, none. I think it’s okay. I think as creators, we are so sensitive. Quite frankly, I think a lot of us kind of had a feeling that the world was going to have a reckoning, so I think it’s about taking it all in. Beyond the pandemic, there’s protests, there is intense social change. There’s this kind of acknowledgement that the Civil Rights movement is not over. It just mutated into the Black Lives Matter movement, and we’re going to continue mutating, but the movement is a many, many generations-long movement. For me, I’ve been in that place of just taking it all in, having wide eyes, even though I am mostly inside.

Katori Hall: The fact that I have two little ones and we’re having very hard conversations very early in their lives. My six-year-old is very concerned about the police, very concerned about race, very concerned about representation, because we’re on lockdown, and so we’re taking in a lot of TV. He asks me a lot of questions, like, “Why isn’t that character black?” And I’m like, “Wow, you’re six and you can see it. You can see that you’re not represented.” So yeah, just having very complex conversations with a six-year-old, and it’s where we are right now in this world.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah. With that in mind, I want to go back a little bit for you as a writer and as a creator and as someone who has a part to play in that conversation about representation. Can you go back in your mind, in almost a primordial swamp way, to the first moment when you were like, “I’m a writer, and this is what I’m doing”?

Katori Hall: Ooh, I mean I knew real young. I knew real young. My mother bought me a Fisher-Price dollhouse when I was about five? Yeah, very, very early. I remember I lost those people so quick. They were just gone. They were under the couch, they was thrown in the garbage can, they was outside. They were just everywhere, gone. I remember going into my dad’s dresser and finding a battery. I’m like, “Okay, this battery has to be the person.” Then I remember going into the couch and getting all the lint and squishing it, squishing it, making it into little balls, and “Okay, these are the dogs.” So very, very, very early, my imagination was just on fire, and I could play by myself for eight hours at a time. I didn’t really need a babysitter. My mom was like, “Yes, sugar! Occupy herself!” So yeah, very, very young, I actually began to think of stories. My sister, Taffy, she was the one who taught me how to write, so we would play school and she’d be my teacher.

Katori Hall: So very early, I think around five, even six, I was beginning to write little, little stories. It’s just part of how I see the world. I see the world in story. I feel painters, visual artists, they see the world in color, visuals. As a writer, I’m like, “I see it in story.” Everything makes sense to me if I can assign a story, if I can assign a label to a person in my life, like, “Are you a protagonist in my life? I don’t know.” I’m always trying to figure out who people represent in my life. Are they the gatekeeper? Are they the mentor?

Katori Hall: Yeah, so in terms of when I started writing writing, or knew that I was going to do it as a profession, I actually started writing semi-professionally as a 14-year-old because I started writing for my hometown newspaper. What I really loved about working for the Commercial Appeal, they had a teen paper called the Teen Appeal, and then obviously it was connected to the Commercial Appeal. But it was this quest to constantly question the world, and ask questions, and figure out why things were the way they were. I feel as though journalism provided this amazing base for myself, where I am never afraid of asking the question of anything and anyone. I think it has a lot to do with why… I would say I use a lot of journalistic skills when it comes to figuring out what types of stories I want to write and put out into the world.

Katori Hall: But I would say I thought I was going to be a journalist, then I thought I was going to be a novelist, and then when it came to becoming a dramatist, I had this very intense crystallization moment that happened in my college years, when I started taking acting classes. I basically gotten the acting bug, as I think a lot of people do who are interested in drama, because actors, you see them. You don’t know that there are other jobs in drama. You’re like, “Oh, good. I can act. Okay, I’m going to do that.” But just caught the acting bug and was taking classes.

Katori Hall: I remember our teacher, she assigned us, she basically said, “Go to the library and find a play with a scene for you and your scene partner’s type.” So, me and my scene partner, we were two young black women. I remember us going to the library and we spent all night at the damn Columbia library. I was like, “Good God.” We was pulling down all kinds of plays. We couldn’t find nothing. Nothing. It was crazy. So, the next day, I remember, we went back to class, and we were like, “We can’t find anything. We could do The Crucible, but we can’t share the part of Tituba. We need some suggestions.” I remember our teacher standing there, and 10 seconds went by. 20 seconds went by. 40 seconds went by, and she could not think of a play that had a scene for two young black women. In that moment, I was like, “Well, I’m going to write those plays, then.”

Katori Hall: That, to me, was that moment of ah, like the light bulb went off and the angels were shining a light on my mind, where I was like, “I know that there’s a scarcity.” Not to say that those plays did not exist. It was the fact that they were not included in the library. I think that was the tricky thing. So, we decided to go to other places. I remember us going to the Drama Bookshop, and that’s when I started reading a lot of Lynn Nottage, a lot of Suzan-Lori Parks. I knew that these women who were creating stories that had scenes for young black women were out there, but it was interesting that in the ivory tower, I would say the black female perspective was not represented. Having that moment of that teacher not… Being a teacher, and should have been someone who had this huge library in her own mind, and even within the library in her own mind she could not access those plays. I knew that I had to do whatever I could do to put those plays on the shelf.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, there’s the question of the canon, and who gets to be in the canon, and who decides what the canon is of plays, and what people learn along the way. Especially, as you say, the literal ivory tower of a lot of those universities, it’s so obvious that people haven’t been introduced to those plays by the time they get there.

Katori Hall: Exactly.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Fast-forward a little bit, and now you’re a multi award-winning playwright.

Katori Hall: Who said that? Who said that? Did Wikipedia say that? They lying!

Kaitlin Fontana: I don’t know. I’ve heard some things. Your series, P-Valley, was itself a play called Pussy Valley before it was created. As you said earlier, this has been a long journey for you. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about that journey. What journey did the series take from play to TV, in terms of craft, and what happened along the way?

Katori Hall: So, I would say I’ve been on the journey of Pussy Valley… Let’s call it Pussy Valley for right now.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, please.

Katori Hall: Even before the play, in that I took six years of my life to learn about this world, the world of strip clubs, learn about these women, almost embed myself into their lives. So, I visited over 40 clubs, interviewed over 40 women. Journalistic skills coming into play, ay, ay, Just to make sure that I was getting this world right. It’s such a stigmatized world. It’s such a misunderstood world. So, asking those questions, the deep questions about why that world exists, and actually is so lucrative was so important to me. The fact that I’m a Southern girl, and I went to strip clubs as a female customer. What I saw up on those poles were athletes, and not necessarily strippers. So, I really wanted to show how amazing the craft of pole dancing is and how amazing these women are.

Katori Hall: When I saw the play version, after that six-year-long excursion of asking questions, I very quickly saw that I hadn’t written the play, actually. Even though the strip club in itself is such a theatrical experience, at least the strip clubs that I used to go to was such a theatrical experience, the way in which I wrote it, it didn’t necessarily translate into the most perfect play because there was so much to explore. The characters literally had legs for days, and hopefully seasons, literally and figuratively. It was just demanding to be made into, as I call, a visual novel. So, I very quickly was like, “Oh, my God.” I called up some people, I’m like, “I got to pitch this. I got to go out to LA and see if I can convince someone to embark on this humanization project with me.”

Katori Hall: So, I landed at Starz network, and I will forever be indebted to the people who saw that this was a show that had legs, but also was after something beyond what we have seen before, in terms of strip clubs in the media. I keep on thinking about the Bada Bing! in The Sopranos, and how the strip club was a backdrop and the women were kind of props instead of actual human beings. That’s what we were trying to do with the show.

Katori Hall: That transformation of play to TV show took four years, just because I needed to learn how to be a showrunner. I needed to learn how to create a story that was open-ended. With the play, there’s a particular parenthesis that you’re after. There’s your beginning and your end, and everything that happened in between, that’s what’s happening. My particular play parenthesis was three and a half hours long, which was too damn long for a play. I mean, there are some plays that are longer, but still. I was like, “It’s too damn long for this play.” But to create a story that had an engine that could just go on and draw people back week after week after week, hopefully year after year, was something that I really had to sit down and figure out.

Katori Hall: I ended up having a writers’ room that went on for a very long time. I’ve forgotten the length of time we had. I think I had a mini-room, and then I had, I call it Room One. Then we were put on pause because instead of getting picked up to series, which is what usually happens at Starz at that time, they decided to start switching to pilot presentations. So, I had to pause the room, do a pilot presentation, and then do another room. I was in the room for, oh, my God, like 30 something weeks. It was a long time.

Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, wow.

Katori Hall: It was a long time, yeah, and just for eight episodes, right?

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Katori Hall: Very, very long time. But quite frankly needed the time because we were trying to balance so many stories and so many characters who… This show is not led by one protagonist, even though some people may think… I think upon initial glance in the first couple of episodes, that, “Mercedes is the protagonist, and Autumn Night’s the protagonist.” It’s actually this sprawling ensemble, and we had to make sure that we created a foundation for that first season that allowed each character their turn in the sun, and make sure that every character’s own journey was in complete connection to the major plot. I didn’t even think of the plot being different from the subplots of the characters. I was like, “The subplots and the major plot, they’re all working in concert, or rather, they should.” That’s why I always say that for me, the show aims to be more of a visual novel than anything else. But it has been a journey.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting to hear how long you spent in the writers’ room, because it has a feel of a very… Right from the first episode, it feels very lived-in. It feels very much like you’ve been in these characters’ world already, and you’re sort of arriving… like you’re waiting on line for the club, for the 15th or 20th time. You already know them. They’re already part of your journey, and you’re kind of picking up with them on that particular day. I wonder how much of that comes from that fact that you were able to take the time to really draw these stories together.

Katori Hall: Yeah, because beyond the room, I had spent those six years in the real rooms, the backstages and in the homes with the women. What’s very interesting is that the first scene that Mercedes is in, when she’s upside down on the pole, I took it completely from the play. I was like, “These first two pages from the play will stay intact.” The DNA of the play is firmly embedded into the show, just because, once again, this feeling of wanting it to feel lived-in, me wanting to make sure that the audience felt like a fly on the wall versus a voyeur.

Katori Hall: I almost felt like the audience is like just another stripper in that room, so we try not to explain anything. I mean, there are some rules that need to be explained, but when it comes to the language, as we call it, the slanguage of the world, and how people interact, we did not want to talk down to the audience. We just wanted to present the world as it was, and the characters to live and be who they are, without having to completely provide all this exposition as to why the club is set up in the way that it is.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right. You get a little bit of that when Autumn is being taken around and you kind of see the ins and outs of who you talk to and why, which men are the ones you know have money and which ones are just hanging out. The tags on the suit is such a great detail. I wonder what conversations you were having. As you said, you landed with Starz and they were… When you watch the show, the thing I’m so grateful for is that nothing is watered-down. The slanguage, you land right in it. You land right in this very Southern, very black world, unapologetically, and it feels very lived-in and very lovingly handed to us by your hands. The gaze is not gross or male gaze, it’s very female gaze. It’s very much not trying to say, “Here, white audience. Come into this world.” It’s like, “Yo, this is it.” I’m wondering, I’m very curious about the conversations you had with Starz and with other networks. Was anyone trying to kind of take that power away from you at any point? Was anyone trying to say, “We need to ease people into this”?

Katori Hall: No! I will say that Starz was the only place for the show. I mean, there were some places that wouldn’t even let me come and pitch, because they were just like, “Uh-uh (negative), a strip club show? Nope.” There was the automatic assumption that it was going to be gross, just because of the subject matter. But in terms of my partnership with Starz, I will say creatively, they were very, “Let Katori do what she wants, because we are not black women from the South.” There was that whole thing of like, “Well, let me use this black woman from the South card and ride it on out.” Not to say that they didn’t give notes, or didn’t have any specific concerns. Obviously, they’re a network, though. There will always be conversations. But they really, really, really trusted me.

Katori Hall: One, I would say, it wasn’t a conversation. I do think there was a concern about the slanguage of the show. It’s true, there was a concern, like, “Will people really understand everything?” I’m like, “They don’t have to understand everything,” because as we know, communication is 90% nonverbal anyway, so if the people are watching the intentions of the actors, and if the acting is good enough, then people will get the story. They may have to watch it again, or they may have to watch it a third time, in order to truly understand absolutely everything that is said. “This slanguage feels foreign.” This slanguage feels foreign to some black people, to be honest with you.

Katori Hall: But I stand firmly by our choice in making sure that this was specifically grown from me. I am from Memphis, Tennessee. My family hails from Mississippi. My mom and dad live in Mississippi now. My dad’s family is from Coldwater, Mississippi. That sound has been in my ear for almost 40 years. The South is vast. It includes not only Mississippi, you got Texas, you got North Carolina, you got South Carolina. Within that vast region, there’re so many different ways of speaking, but I really want to zone in and hone in on the slanguage of my family. I was so grateful that they honored that striving towards authenticity. It was just my truth.

Katori Hall: That’s how I speak when I am at home, and I wanted the show to feel like home. Because I knew that if I could create a show that lands in people’s living rooms and they feel like, “Oh, my God. This is made especially for me,” that, to me, is revolutionary, because so often, black folks, specifically Southern black folks, we just do not get a chance to see ourselves articulated in a way that is loving, that is nuanced, that is complicated. I really wanted this to be a love letter to my family and to everyone who has impacted me on my journey in the South.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, I mean, you do feel that, going right in. I think it’s interesting. I’m glad to hear you didn’t face any sort of pushback, because once I started landing in it and thinking about it and listening, it’s not that hard, like you say. You just go along. You go along with the characters. You listen to them. You watch them interact with each other. After a while, it was like, “This reminds me of Deadwood,” in the early days of Deadwood when you had to clue into Deadwood speak.

Katori Hall: Ooh, I’m going to take that as a compliment. Thank you. Thank you, girl. I like that. Deadwood. That’s what we’re going to say on Twitter, “We’re like Deadwood. We’re like Southern Deadwood.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, like super Southern, super queer, super black, super female gaze Deadwood, which that sounds fucking great to me, personally. So, good job. You mentioned your writers’ room earlier, and that it went on for a little while, and you had these multiple rooms. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about staffing, and how you chose writers to come with you on this journey, because I think there’s such a… We’re talking about the slanguage is part of it, but also just this very intricate world of these intertwined characters, as you said before. How are you going about choosing writers to come with you? What were you looking for in those folks?

Katori Hall: I would say for that first room, because every room had a different kind of requirement, I’ll be honest about that. I think for that first room, because it was my first time, I was really looking for a lot of upper-level people. They had done the whole TV rodeo multiple times before. I had done one show. I was a staff writer on one show, but that was it, so I was just really out of practice in terms of thinking about stories in an open-ended way. But what was interesting was that, as we know, people are busy. The upper-levels are just like… I tried to entice people to come to New York. That was another thing. My writers’ room was in New York, and nobody wanted to come to cold ass New York to do a room. But I ended up landing on some really great people. Liz Garcia was my co-showrunner for that… I would say the first two rooms. Yes, mini room and Room One.

Katori Hall: We had this mandate. It was like we want to make sure that we are truly reflective of this world. It would have been nice to have a lot of Southern writers, a lot of Southern black writers, but unfortunately, it was just very, very hard to find. But we ended up having a mostly female room, I would say that first mini room, and a lot of queer people were represented. I actually think it ended up being half and half in terms of people identifying as queer in that first mini room, just because of the storylines and particularly because of the character of Uncle Clifford. We wanted to make sure that we were being… I guess just nailing it and hitting the bullseye when it came to truly articulating this non-binary character in a way that we hadn’t seen on TV before.

Katori Hall: So, it just felt like as you looked across the room, it was the United Nations inside of it. I do think… That’s just how I walk in the world anyway. I just have so many different friends. I’ve lived abroad, I travel a lot. The world is very colorful to me. It’s not all black, it’s not all white, it is everything and everybody, and everybody in between. It was a very kind of natural extension of just who I am as a person to have such a diverse room, and I must say we just continued that mandate through Room One and Room Two, where when we started pulling in more writers, we would think about, “Okay, what don’t we have?” It was that thing of, “Okay, this person has to go away because they have a development deal, or they got hired on another show,” or whatever.

Katori Hall: So, I would say the one thing that I kept at the forefront of my mind was that I wanted it to be a predominantly female room. I would say just along the way we did that in spades. There was one time when maybe there was… If I’m not in the room, one man would be in the room sometimes, which was cool, because I do think it’s about this very strong and unapologetic female voice, and specifically a black female voice. We even had a writer who was a dancer. She danced at 15 different clubs, so just making sure that every step along the way we had a voice that was so strong and people who would be in that room and be very vocal about what was working and what wasn’t working.

Katori Hall: I’m the type of person where… this is much to some people’s chagrin… I don’t believe in hierarchy. I know a lot of different writers’ room are built in a way where it’s like, “Okay, if you’re a staff writer, you can’t speak until the co-APs speak,” or “Oh, you’re a supervising producer. Oh, wait a minute. You’ve got to let the co-showrunners speak.” But I was just like… because that’s not the world I come from. I come from theater. I just didn’t give a fuck. I was like, “I don’t care about this kind of unspoken rule that, based on your position, you’re supposed to speak or not speak,” because quite frankly, to me, that’s a replication of the patriarchal system. Oftentimes, white men are in power, and so oftentimes, they get the mic the most.

Katori Hall: I was just like, “Let’s just throw all of these so-called rules, spoken or unspoken, and just throw them out of this room, because I feel as though some of the best ideas are coming from the people who have less experience, because the reason why they’ve gotten less experience is because they haven’t been given the opportunities.” Most of those people tend to be women, they tend to be women of color, so for me, I was like, “In order to make this room feel more egalitarian, more democratic, let’s not adhere to, I would say, the usual hierarchy that exists in most writers’ rooms.” To some people, that was like, “Oh, okay.” The writers’ assistant was like, “Wait a minute! I got an idea,” but that would make some people really mad, like, “Wait a minute. I’m the story editor, and the writers’ assistant should be saying nothing.”

Katori Hall: So, we had to kind of get used to the way that I felt like this world needed to be represented. It was important to have a room that did not operate by the usual rules, because we were trying to create a show that wasn’t going to operate by the usual TV rules. We were going to create a TV show that was like, “We not whitewashing our language. We just going to be black as hell, and queer as hell, and Southern as hell.” We’re looking at traditional noir and subverting it. We’re looking at stereotypes and subverting them. I wanted a completely fresh perspective, and I know that oftentimes, fresh perspectives tend to be stifled in rooms that adhere to, I would say, more patriarchal and hierarchal systems.

Katori Hall: That was something that has always been just the way that I roll in life. I can talk to a janitor and talk to them like they’re a human being, like, “Oh, that’s a dope idea for a TV show. You should go write that.” I’m just very… My ears are always open, and my eyes are always very wide. I know that the people who are just starting out or who are so-called on the bottom, they actually have a lot to say about the world, and we need to listen to them more. That, quite frankly, is reflected quite directly in the show, where we’re listening to people and people who have been dancing at the margins of our society, they get an opportunity to be center stage for once.

Kaitlin Fontana: I’m so glad you said all that, because that feeds directly into this question. I know this is a thing that has come up a lot when you talk about the show, but it’s because it’s this very potent moment in the pilot when Mercedes is on the pole and the sound goes out, and we just hear how hard and athletically she is working. She’s way up at the top by the ceiling. You can hear her grunting and breathing, and it has this athleticism. It kind of turns down the sound on everything else, and kind of focuses on her and what she’s been doing. By this point in the pilot, we know she’s been doing this for seven year. We know she’s trying to leave. We know that there’s a lot going on in her world, but that she’s sort of the center of the universe of this club in a certain sense.

Kaitlin Fontana: I’ve heard a lot of people be like, “That’s amazing!” when talking to you, and it is amazing. I think it’s such a lovely way to say, “Look at this human being, working so hard to take the stigma out of dancing and to take the stigma out of pole dancing.” But the thing I thought about, watching it, is how much does Mercedes represent you in that moment, and how fucking hard women have to work, and black women, specifically, have to work to like… You’re waiting for your fanfare, but you’re there at the top of the pole grunting and trying to get it done.

Katori Hall: Ooh, child.

Kaitlin Fontana: I wonder how much of that is happening for you in that moment, watching her?

Katori Hall: It’s every day. I think getting this show to where it is has been a gargantuan feat that obviously no one sees. They see the end result. They see the shine. They’re like, “Oh, great reviews,” and whatnot. “Oh, my God, black Twitter is going crazy.” They have no idea how hard I had to fight. The fact that there were people in LA who would not let me come inside of their building to pitch, that to me is an indication of like, “Oh, you think this black woman’s story that is about black women that centers black women is not good enough to even consider.” You clock that, and you’re like, “Okay. I see you.” Then, having to be in a space that was absolutely supportive but it’s still challenging because you’re having to teach people what your show is because no one has ever seen it before, this kind of unapologetic blackness in such an elevated way, and to constantly assuage people’s fears.

Katori Hall: There were concerns about, “There’s this slanguage, but then there’s the stereotype of black women and hypersexualization.” I’m like, “Yes, I know that, because I’m a black woman and I inherited all that. However, let me tell this story, because these women exist. I have seen them, I have been in the room with them.” So, as a creator, constantly having to prove yourself, even to people who actually are trying to support you. That’s the trick of being a black content creator, when you are trying to do something so specific and so special, and something that you want to be groundbreaking and people being naysayers even on the inside. We went through a moment where all the people that I started with left the company, and having to repitch and reteach people about why this show was important in the midst of production. In the midst of production, because everyone who had said yea to it had left.

Katori Hall: So, that exertion and the grunting and the squeaking against the metal pole and holding yourself up against gravity, which in our world, unfortunately, gravity can be white male privilege, where they don’t have to fight as hard or explain as much, or they get bigger budgets, and they get more days on their pilot. You’re having to constantly fight for all of that. But I always say that in the world of P-Valley, sometimes falling feels like rising. When you see Mercedes slide on down to that pole, she gives off that energy when she lands on that stage and she doesn’t hit the ground. The fact that she shows people that, “I have enough strength in my core, in my inner self, to not hit the ground,” and then boom, the audience just erupts. To me, it feels like what has happened in the past few weeks where it’s like, “See how strong I am? You thought I was going to fall, but I didn’t. I held on. Look at what the people are saying about the show.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, I think that’s right. Relatedly, I would like to talk a little bit about the Dear White American Theater letter. At the beginning of this call, we started talking about you have a history of activism. You have an awesome Memphis mug, too. I just noticed it.

Katori Hall: I know. I got this at Starbucks!

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, I love it. You have this history, and you’ve written about the Civil Rights movement. You are someone who’s been in the theater for a long time. This letter, and the movement that followed, the Dear White American Theater letter… Well, first of all, I wonder if you could give us a little background from your perspective on what that movement is, and why it came to the fore when it did and the way it did.

Katori Hall: Absolutely. I was at home, like so many other theater workers, out of work. The fact that we are living in such a pivotal moment in history. The pandemic has shut down the world, and definitely shut down the theater. We are an art form that depends on gathering in small spaces, and boom, we cannot do that no more. So, I’m sitting at home, and all of a sudden, I find out that this letter is being circulated, this Dear White American Theater. It’s basically this long litany of all of these abuses that people who are considered, I will call BIPOC, which is Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, theater makers have gone through, working in American theater. Unfortunately, American theater is utterly and completely white. I mean, the stats are crazy.

Katori Hall: So, I think this mixture of being in lockdown and then seeing what was happening to our black people, the fact that George Floyd was killed the way he was killed, a knee on his neck. We saw his life drain out of his body over eight minutes and 46 seconds. Then, the fact that Breonna Taylor’s killers have not been brought to justice, the fact that you saw Ahmaud Aubery being shot in his gut, it was these images of black bodies under abuse. I think that theater makers were at this moment of precipice, where very much impacted by the treatment of black bodies in the world, and seeing how the treatment of black art can be inside of the theater.

Katori Hall: So, we’re at home, we’re being inundated with these images, and then this letter starts circulating around, and I very quickly signed my name. I think that initially it was like 300 and something people signed their name, just basically calling out to American theater like, “We see what you’re doing to us. We see this. We see that. We cannot allow you to continue using black bodies, black art, black theater makers, under abuse in the say that you have.” It was, I think, triggered by everything that was going on in society and just in the world. What was so beautiful about this moment of, I would say, togetherness, it just really started out with a signature, a letter, a signature. Then, I think the last time I had a conversation with someone, there was a petition, and it garnered over 80-something thousand signatures over the course of a few days. That’s insane.

Katori Hall: To me, it was just a reflection of how much theater has to change, and then, quite frankly, how white theater is. The fact that 95% of the plays on Broadway, 95% are by white folks. 95% white writers, white directors. That’s insane to me. That’s insane to me. The stats are probably worse in other areas. I think about the technical unions, and just how white they are. That’s connected to unions in film and TV as well. So, I just really felt that this movement that, like I said, started just with a letter that was posted on a website, but just garnered so much support so quickly, was an indication to American theater that things have to change.

Katori Hall: So, I think subsequently, the We See You, they call themselves. There’s no leader, there’s no one to call. We were like, “Who is the leader of this movement?” It’s almost operated like Anonymous online, where there’s just this force, there’s this public presence, of people demanding accountability in the American theater. I think it’s so beautiful because there’s no one to blame or scapegoat. It’s such a powerful way to do it. I also think it ends up protecting people who are new to American theater. It’s like everyone is kind of mixed together. You look at that signatory list. It includes people from Lynn Nottage to Issa Rae to a lot of people that others don’t know, like young theater artists. I think it’s just a beautiful reflection and indication of the power of the BIPOC community and those theater makers, and how they have come together to demand systemic change. Systemic change, not the whole like, “Hmm, just put female black people in your show.” That’s not what folks are asking for, seems like.

Katori Hall: So, recently, on that same website where they dropped the letter, there’s been this drop of this… I call it a bible. I was like, “What is this?” It’s some 30-something page document of a list of demands, of like, “This is what you need to do to change.” I have heard that every theater has basically printed this thing out, and they’re flipping through, trying to figure out where they rate when it comes to perpetuating white supremacy. So, I think it’s such a powerful moment, and obviously there are many movements within a movement. I think all of this is par for the course, but no matter if you’re protesting in the streets or donating or signing important letters, there’s so much work to do. I definitely think it’s all dovetailing in this moment of great social change in our world.

Kaitlin Fontana: With that in mind, now that you’re in television, you’re a showrunner, you’re on that side of the coin as well, what do you see your responsibilities being within the framework of this new sort of media that you’re in?

Katori Hall: Speaking truth to power, i.e., reading people for filth. Meaning…

Kaitlin Fontana: I love that.

Katori Hall: … meaning, if you have this platform, if you have this power… This show is popping. This show is popping, so I have to use this moment and be like, “Okay, this is what not only I need as a creator, but this is what everybody needs.” We have to start certain mandates. We have to think about, “Okay, how are we going to change the fact that…” For example, on my post-production team on P-Valley, just by virtue of it being post-production, was very white. We tried. We tried to make it more diverse, but it is what it is. So, it’s like having conversations with my post-producer about, “Okay, how do we mandate this? How do we create an actual pipeline?”

Katori Hall: The nitty-gritty stuff, because at the end of the day, it’s not just about the creative. It’s not just about the story. It’s about the people who create the story, and if you want that story to truly be authentic and truly to be revolutionary, then the revolution needs to happen below the line, as well. It just can’t be the performance of diversity, which is its own activism, but the true activism comes when you’re aiming towards equality and not just diversity. It’s like equal pay for the actors, more consideration for the stunt doubles who are predominantly black women, but not being paid at the rate that the white male stunt doubles are being paid. Looking at all the inequities in your own house, and then trying to figure out, “Okay, what is my mandate moving forward, and how can I codify my mandate so that the next person, the next showrunner who steps into this position of great power, and it is great power, how can we make sure the baton is passed along?”

Katori Hall: I think a lot of it comes down to, like I said, reading people for filth, and sharing information. I think that’s why a lot of things stay the way that they are, because people don’t want to share salary information. People don’t want to share the way that they’re running their sets or this, that, and the other. I just think that whole idea of, “I’m just going to keep all my secrets to myself,” it’s not going to fly if we’re truly going to achieve a more equitable entertainment industry, because supremacy, I think, it grows in the dark. It’s like a mushroom. They do real well in the dark. So, if we’re going to really eradicate this fungus of supremacy within our industry, we’re going to have to let the light shine, and like I said, be very transparent with everything.

Kaitlin Fontana: What does everybody else have to do?

Katori Hall: Exactly!

Kaitlin Fontana: You’ve explained very well what you need to do.

Katori Hall: I think that a lot of the white men who are in power, whether they are the heads of companies, or they’re showrunners themselves, they need to think about what are they doing, because oftentimes people ask the black person, or the woman, “So, how should we solve this problem?” Actually, I’m doing my job. What you going to do? So, it’s really about putting fire under the asses of those who have been in this business for a minute, because that’s the thing of what should other people do. They should look at what we’re doing, and try and replicate it in their own houses, and on their own shows. If they’re not, then there needs to be some transparency about the fact that they’re not, and then… I know people are saying, “Oh, cancel culture is so bad,” and whatever and whatever, but I’m like, “No. Shining light on the people who are not hitting the A grade when it comes to being inclusive, I think is very important if we are truly, truly trying to move towards a more equitable society on all levels, whether it’s entertainment, business, politics. We need more transparency.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, yeah, and I think a lot of the people who’ve never been challenged before see themselves being canceled when what they’re just being is just challenged.

Katori Hall: It’s just challenged.

Kaitlin Fontana: It’s just saying, “Hey, what are you doing over there?” That’s not me canceling you, that’s me saying, “Hey, show me what you’re doing.”

Katori Hall: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: Some people are like, “What? How dare you cancel me.” It’s like, “No, I didn’t. I just asked what you were doing over there. That’s all I wanted to know.”

Katori Hall: I’m just asking a question. I’m just being a journalist and asking a question.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s right. That’s right. What are you excited about next? What’s next for you? I know it’s pandemic times. I know you’re in the middle of your show rolling out, and you’re just kind of letting that happen. But what else is out there that you’re excited about?

Katori Hall: I’m really excited about some ideas that have been percolating for a long time. I have this play called The Hot Wing King, that unfortunately was shuttered early due to the pandemic. But I am very interested in developing that into a television series. I have this idea, just talking about this idea of representation. I remember when I was in Uganda with my son, we were visiting my husband’s family. He was super young at the time, and so I remember going into a Ugandan bookstore because I wanted to find more books that had little boys that looked like him in them. I found so many, and then I came across this book of African princesses. I learned about Queen Njinga, who became one of the greatest… I call her a Quane… a queen in Angola. I didn’t know about her, so the story of Njinga is something that I’m raring to put to paper, just because him being truly African-American. He truly is half African, half American.

Katori Hall: To be able to create a show that shows us in a different way in a different world in the past, but of royalty, this idea of looking at history and revising history and showing a new representation of Africanness, which I think we don’t get an opportunity to see historical, back in the day Africa. So, I’m super excited about that possibility, but I just have so many ideas. Obviously, if I get a second season, I don’t know when the hell I’m going to do those things, but fingers crossed there is a second season of P-Valley. But I know that I will be always looking for the next story, always questioning the world, and making sure that my sons see themselves reflected in the stories that are being told.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s fantastic. I hope you get the chance to do all of it.

Katori Hall: Bye.

Kaitlin Fontana: Take as long as you need, Katori. I’ll be here.

Katori Hall: Oh, awesome.

Kaitlin Fontana: Thank you so much. Thank you for being here. It’s been great talking to you, and I do hope you get a season two. Fingers crossed.

Katori Hall: Fingers crossed.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at You can follow the Guild on social media @WGAEast, and you can follow me on Twitter @kaitlinfontana. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Write on.

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