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 wgaeast.org. 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.