Photo provided by Brandee Evans.
“Let’s keep it real for a minute," Brandee Evans said over the phone from her home in Los Angeles on a recent afternoon. "I’ve noticed a lot of people are judgmental.”
The breakout star from the new Starz series P-Valley, Evans, who plays Mercedes in the show, was in the middle of discussing what it’s like to give a nuanced portrayal of an exotic dancer. Most of the action on creator Katori Hall’s P-Valley takes place inside The Pynk, and the story centers the people who work there. (The show’s title takes its name from Hall’s play, “Pussy Valley,” and a real-life area in “The Dirty Delta” region of Memphis, Tennessee.) When viewers of P-Valley first meet Mercedes, a ferocious queen bee performer at The Pynk strip club, she’s planning to retire from stripping, her sights set on buying a gym where she can train a teenage dance team. Before she can go, she sets up a final performance to bring in enough cash for the down payment.
“Stripping is blasphemous,” the character’s god-fearing mother tells her. “Nah, ma. It’s art. I transport motherfuckers. Dazzle ‘em,” Mercedes responds in her southern Memphis lilt.
“I get so sad thinking of some of the things that, maybe, even I thought before this job because we’re not taking the time to truly know these women,” Evans said. “Everyone has a story, and it deserves to be told. You never know what’s going on in someone else’s life. If you stop and get to know that person, you may realize you’re more alike than you are different.”
Evans sees distinct similarities between herself and the character she plays—both are dancers, both are daughters of preachers. It’s hard to believe that the actress was almost left out of the project entirely. She received a text on Valentine’s Day in 2018 from P-Valley producer Patrik-Ian Polk telling her that they “were looking for a Black girl that can do pole and act.” Evans got in touch with her agent, who said she wasn’t right for any of the roles they were trying to cast. “I got shot down on Valentine’s Day,” Evans said, “But I don’t take no for an answer.”
So, she tried again. She called in some favors from friends in Memphis to get a wig and fix her makeup. She submitted photos of herself dressed the part and was rejected once more.
Then, four months later, after receiving a copy of the script from a friend who pushed her to try again, Evans got in touch with her manager. As it turns out, her manager had asked her months prior to send in videos of her dancing, which she declined to do because at the time, she had decided to leave dancing. Once she realized it was necessary for a role on P-Valley, Evans acquiesced, and sent in videos of herself coaching dance classes, dancing with NBA teams, performing as a professional dancer and choreographer in Japan, and a photo of herself and her father, “because I’m a preacher’s daughter like Mercedes,” she said. In 24 hours she had an audition on the calendar for the next day, which meant she had even fewer hours to learn all of her lines.
At the last minute, she realized she also had to come to the audition with a dance routine. “I wanted to do something different, so I Googled myself—I searched ‘Brandee Evans Ne-Yo’ to find a routine that I taught for a Valentine’s Day special,” she said. “It involved a chair, and I was like, no one else is going to do a chair routine, they’re going to think ‘stripper’ and they’re going to want to twerk or do pole. I’m going to be different and do a slow routine in a chair.” The plot worked, and she secured the part.
She flew to Atlanta to start filming, and brought her mother, who has Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. “That was very difficult, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said. “I still take care of her to this day, and will, until her last breath—or mine.”
Evans had an unconventional journey to becoming an actress. Her career flourished precisely when she was the English department chair at a high school, and coach of a dance team. “I was good at teaching. My kids were scoring very high on their exams," she explained. “I liked it, but I didn’t love it, if I’m being honest. I wanted to love it.”
A couple weeks after telling her best friend on the phone, “I really wish I could live my dream,” Evans suffered a stillbirth. Shortly after that, her then-husband (now ex-husband) was deployed. And then she lost her job coaching the dancing team she had just brought to victory at nationals. “It was like, how in the world does all this happen? I felt like my whole life came crashing down,” Evans said. “So I took a vacation to L.A. to dance with a choreographer. That turned into a tour. I wrote my resignation letter to the school board on the Lil Wayne tour bus on July 29, 2009.”
She traveled the world, dancing on NBA teams, opening for Lil Wayne, and coaching in various countries like Japan, which she considers to be her favorite place. “I have a dance team called the Golden Hawks there and I’ve been there 17 times,” she said. “I still work with those ladies, and from time to time we work via Zoom as well.”
The pivot to acting came after Evans audited a class taught by Tasha Smith, a prominent acting coach (and director of episode six of P-Valley). “When I was in that class I felt like I was home. It was like, this was everything I had been missing,” she said. “When Tasha talked, I never got bored. I never felt tired. I ended up staying in that class after midnight and said, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
To prepare for the role of Mercedes, Evans had to do her homework. She is a Memphis native, but had no idea that the neighborhood “Pussy Valley” even existed before she was cast on the Starz series. “I went back home to visit my old school, and listened to the kids and adults talk about Pussy Valley. Kids would be like, ‘Yeah, I live in P.V.,’’ she explained. “Maybe because of my father, I didn’t frequent that area. I lived in South Memphis, but then I went to a performing arts high school that was farther away from home so I wasn’t privy to that world.” That area known as "Pussy Valley," by the way, is no longer a stretch of land for strip clubs—it's an apartment complex.
The actress visited every strip club in Memphis, most, if not all of the strip clubs in Atlanta (where P-Valley was filmed) and even some clubs in Los Angeles “to really get a feel for it,” she said. “Our choreographer Jamaica Craft brought in Spyda, an O.G. from that world who trained me. She would send me behind-the-scenes footage of what’s happening in the clubs for real. I was getting an authentic experience.”
What separates P-Valley from any other “stripper drama” you’ve probably seen is the sheer athleticism required of pole dancers on display. At over 12 feet high, the poles demand strength from each one of the performers.
This mental and physical strength comes through almost immediately. At the end of the pilot episode (which was directed by 24-year-old Karena Evans), Mercedes finally gets on the pole. But once she reaches the top, the music cuts to background—all that can be heard are the deep, intense breaths she’s taking while trying to keep her core strong enough to climb and twerk, and the numbers she’s muttering to herself to keep her body on beat. It is the type of workout that makes you sweat from just watching it.
It’s all the more impressive to know that Evans did many of her own stunts for the role. “I’m sure I gave Starz a hard time trying to do all of my stunts,” she said. “I was told I couldn’t do some of them but when they said ‘action,’ the competitive girl in Brandee was like, ‘I’m doing this! It’s on camera now!’ They just wanted to keep me safe and I respect that, but the dancer and athlete in me just wanted to do it.”
Evans said she felt that the dance coaching aspect of Mercedes was the part she could relate to the most. You thought Cheer's Coach Monica was tough? Just wait until you meet Mercedes. "When you see how much Mercedes cares about these girls, I feel that way about my girls," Evans said. "Even to this day, even though I may not be coaching some of them, if a parent were to call me and tell me that their daughter is not getting her grades up, I will call those girls and be like, ‘Have you lost your mind?’” she explained. "I am the same way with my girls—no, I’m probably worse than Mercedes! When the parents give them to me, they’re my children, and they can have them back when rehearsal is over."
While P-Valley was filmed in Atlanta, Evans praised Hall’s dedication to making it really feel like Memphis, and her attention to detail regarding what it’s like to be a customer at a strip club. (A subplot involving The Pynk’s much sought-after chicken wings calls to mind the lemon pepper wing craze that started in Atlanta. “I’m pescatarian now, but I would go to Magic City in Atlanta just to get some chicken wings,” Evans admitted.)
Even the on-screen nudity is handled with a level of sensitivity and care that is all too often missing from portrayals of complicated women who must use their bodies to work. Perhaps that is, in part, because each episode of P-Valley is directed by a woman, with women cinematographers and crew as well. “There’s a scene with Elarica [Johnson], and she’s completely nude. It took me three times watching it to realize she was nude because they didn’t shoot it for me to pay attention to that. I was interested in what she was saying and that’s what we want as women,” Evans explained. “Can you listen to us? We know we’re beautiful, but we really just want you to listen to us.”
Evans was keen on highlighting the unique experience working with only women directors for this project. “It felt safer, it felt more comfortable,” she said. “As a woman, who do you want to talk to when it comes to your body? I love you, men, but it’s just easier to say, ‘I am so bloated today, I don’t feel confident’ and a woman understands everything you’re saying and feeling, and she’s motivating you along the way. You have big sister, mama, and director all in one.”
Though P-Valley has only just gotten started, Evans still has big dreams about her acting future. “I really want to do action and comedy,” she explained. “I want to be in Black Panther 2, I’ll cut my hair or do whatever they need! I really just want to work with Angela Bassett.”
“I can’t live without acting,” Evans added. “I could never dance again in my life and I would be fine, but it would be like snatching my soul away if I couldn’t act.”