brandee evans and katori hall
Courtesy of Starz; Getty
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In’s recurring feature Character Study, we ask the creators behind our favorite shows to go deep about what went into creating their memorable characters: the original idea behind them, how they were tailored to the actor and elements of them we might not see on the screen.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Katori Hall turned her acclaimed 2015-play Pussy Valley into the Starz series P-Valley, she brought to TV a rare depiction of life in and around a strip club. The series revolves around the Pynk, a small town Mississippi club, and the dancers who work there, and both honors and respects its characters in the way that feels revolutionary.

At the center of it is Mercedes, a veteran performer (played by Brandee Evans) and dance team coach for teens who began season 1 with a retirement plan that went awry. In a discussion on the show’s second season, Hall’s love for the character—her resiliency, power, and capacity for love—is evident. “Her personality, that fact that she has spidey sense, the fact that she’s hard-worn and just tough as nails, that’s always been a part of my version of Mercedes from play to screen,” Hall says. “Mercedes specifically represents all the Black girls around the world who people misunderstand and think that are just tough and rolling their necks for no reason. In all actuality she’s just extremely, extremely complex and represents so many, many of us.”

Hall spoke with about the family dynamics we don’t see, why Evans so perfectly epitomized the Mercedes Hall saw in her head, and where Mercedes might be 20 years from now.

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How did you first conceive of Mercedes and what were the first qualities that stood out to you?

I’ve known a lot of women like Mercedes over the course of my sixteen-year research adventure and also, just in my life. She is so ambitious and tough but she’s kind of like this crab, where she has this hard shell but there’s this softness inside of her.

I feel as though Black women, when it comes to media, oftentimes our vulnerability and who we are truly on the inside does not always get seen, articulated, and even understood. So I wanted Mercedes to always carry this sense of duality with her. But I also just wanted her to feel like a supershero. I wanted people to be impressed by her athleticism and her bravery in addition to just understanding her as a human being.

Was the character tweaked to fit Brandee Evans when she was cast?

What’s so beautiful about Brandee is that in a weird way she was kind of the Mercedes in my head. I loved the fact that her body, she’s so curvaceous and thick and I remember telling Brandee like, “please, don’t lose any weight. I don’t want none of that jiggle jiggle to go away. I want you just as you are,” because when you go into a southern Black strip club, women are curvaceous, they have the bigger bottoms because the twerking is so central to exotic dancing. I really, really loved that, boom, in walked a woman who so completely represented Mercedes on the outside but on the inside as well.

Brandee is also from Memphis, Tennessee and our fictional town is so close to Memphis, it’s like an hour away. She had the sounds, she had the look, she felt so authentic. When we did our first audience testing, I remember like 95 percent [of people] were like, she’s the most authentic character and it was because Brandee brought so much of herself that was so real and was so raw.

Courtesy of Starz

We’ve seen Mercedes’ dynamic with her mother, but do you have any sense of her family in ways we haven’t yet seen?

The one backstory we’ve been delving into is the Terricka of it all. Her daughter that she had to give up when she was younger, whom she had at a very early age. What’s interesting about Mercedes is that she doesn’t know her father, but I feel like her father is out there. I think that that absence has played such a huge part in how she views men and how she views herself. That’s a part of her backstory that we explore in the writers’ room, but we haven’t gotten an opportunity yet to tackle it just yet because we’re so early on in our journey of the entire series.

What were significant relationships and friendships in her life before we met her on screen? What was she like with people when she was younger?

I definitely feel as though she was always the queen bee and sometimes it’s really hard to be friends with the queen bee. She’s that person in your clique that makes all of the decisions and any time there’s a person who goes against her, there’s hell to pay. I do think she really enjoyed having that power in her circles of friends.

But what’s very interesting though I think about the relationship that she had with Cortez, the now deceased father of her child. She was fifteen when she got pregnant, but he was nineteen. In the state of Mississippi for them to be together, that’s statutory rape because he’s above the age of eighteen. So, I feel like she’s always been older. She’s always looked older, always felt wiser than her years and it had a lot to do with the fact that she was forced to grow up too fast due to what was happening in her home and having to deal with her mother and what her mother was struggling with.

That particular relationship was a moment that even though it was quote unquote illegal, that was the first time she kind of felt taken care of. And I think someone who’s always the person who is on top, always the person who quote unquote knows everything and sometimes can even bully other people, to be able to be soft with someone is a life-changing experience. It’s very complicated that, yes, there’s this four-year age difference but because of everything that she went through, they actually were more like peers.

She lost him earlier on, as he was actually was already in a relationship with another woman and then also lost her daughter when he ended up taking Terricka to raise with his partner at the time. There was just so much loss that she had to deal with and that’s a really hard, bitter pill to swallow. Yet she’s the type of person who uses very intense negative experiences and sublimates them into this positive energy of being able to be a dream catcher.

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How do you think she’s grown or changed since the beginning of the show?

I think something that has changed about her is that she is now okay with expressing her vulnerability more with people. I think she has discovered the power of vulnerability with certain people in her life. Her relationship with Uncle Clifford has been a seven-year long relationship that’s changed from employee/boss to mentee/mentor to now by the end of season two, sister friends. It’s beautiful to see how she has blossomed as this flower that will forever ever be a part of the history of Pynk. She definitely has said she helped build the Pynk off of her booty. It’s true. Her being the headliner, her being that draw that made people travel from hours around to sit and stand at the foot of the stage just so that they can see her. To be able to witness a power like that, but then for audience to realize that as a character she struggles with these real life emotions that we all struggle with. It’s this beautiful juxtaposition of the shero and the human.

What do you want for her future? Where do you think she'll be in 20 years—or where do you want her to be?

I want her to have everything. I want her to have a wonderful relationship with her daughter. I want her to have a wonderful relationship with her mother. They probably need to go to therapy. They need to do all the things. They can’t just be in hood therapy, they need to get a doctor in there. Also, just thinking about the huge impact the absence of her father has had on her, if she is able to find him and begin building those blocks, I would love for her to have a great relationship with him. What’s beautiful about Mercedes is that relationships are really, really important to her. She understands the thing about show and putting out a version of yourself for other people’s consumption but she also knows how to keep a part of herself to herself and that private part she really wants to share with the most important people in her life.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.