Elarica Johnson Talks About Bringing Up The Topic Of Colorism And Not Being Typecast By Her ‘P-Valley’ Character

Photo: Lloyd Pursall

Fans are eagerly awaiting the return of the beloved Starz series P-Valley. As a result of our real-world pandemic, we’ve been estranged from the show’s dynamic characters for far too long, including Mississippi, Uncle Clifford, and Autumn Night.

In the wake of tragedies season 2 record back, spoke to Elarica Johnson, the British-born actress who plays Night of the new season, tackling the on-screen pandemic and the prospect of finding herself in sex roles. See what she had to say below.

what do you think it was about P-Valley who captured so much public attention?

I think it was the fact that it was something people hadn’t really seen before. Among the actors, we were talking about how many films we had seen about strip clubs, dancers, anything with women in the foreground. [It made us wonder] how will it be accepted by the public? Is it going to be something that works really, really well? Is this something people won’t understand?

And there’s the world of Chucalissa, Mississippi itself. It’s a place no one has ever really seen before. If they did, it was because they were from the south and understood the language, the culture, the music and the whole vibe. For me, it was a place I had never been or known. And it was so exciting! That’s why I was interested and I thought a lot of other people would be. Besides that, the writing is fantastic. There were a lot of people who could identify with it. It’s a mixture of both. We just gave a window into this world that people had never seen before.

someone wrote this P-Valley looks a lot like Players club except we see the history of the female gaze.

That’s what Katori [Hall] (creator of P-Valley) sought. That’s why we have all these directors. And I think it was about time. We still see women being oversexualized, from this man’s perspective for so many years now. What does it look like from a woman’s point of view? It’s still a strip club and still women dancing, naked. What it does is show these women as more human in some ways. And also, we see beyond sexuality and nudity and see who they really are. They are fantastic people. I’ve seen movies with strip clubs and dancers before and you never know who they are. They are just in the background.

How did you feel at the start of the second season? Did you feel pressure given the popularity of the series?

Honestly, I had a lot of time to think about it. We took a while to get out. It was a lot of excitement. I don’t think the pressure was there. The thing with Season 1 was that, the expectation we had. We had no idea. So when the show came out and did so well, we were like it was amazing! I looked at what we had. We had this big group of fans who couldn’t wait for this show to come out. So whatever happened in season two, it was going to be loved. I can be sure of that because Katori is very consistent. The stories she tells with these characters are so real and so easy for the audience to tell and understand. They are just waiting for that. I don’t think the show is about “Let’s wait and explosive stuff”. That’s part of it. But I think people are so invested in the characters and where they’re going emotionally that we have our eyes on us. I’m so thankful for that. And I’m very excited for everyone to see what the show is about now. There were no nerves, it was more exciting to come back, to be with the cast and back in the valley.

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Can you talk about the decision to tackle COVID on the show? A lot of people don’t want COVID in their entertainment.

I know a lot of people don’t want to see the stress they’ve been under for two years. But again, Katori’s writing is very honest and very real. It is therefore logical that the characters live the same reality as us. You want to feel close to these people and their journey because a lot of people have suffered during this time. The characters go through a different time like everyone else. The Pynk is an establishment like all the others around us. And it has a problem to be able to continue because people have to be close. The struggle of dancers to keep working when they don’t know what’s going on. But I think what’s great is that we see these characters outside of The Pynk in their natural habitat.

Some of the characters we have on the show have a lot to do at home. And also, mental health. I haven’t had as much conversation about mental health as I did during COVID. It took a while for people to sit down with their thoughts. Unable to be with the people they loved, they were alone and had to talk about it. It was very difficult. And so I’m so happy, we’re discussing what this world looks like in this very scary space that everyone’s been in.

The show is known for tackling colorism issues. From your point of view, do you think your character Autumn Night gets any privileges or special treatment for being lighthearted?

I mean it’s the old talk: colorism. [These are] discussions I have had with my friends and throughout my life. Reading the script for the first season, I thought, “Wow, that’s really a conversation here. And it is in this world. I was able to talk to some of the dancers. It’s definitely something America is talking about. America talks a lot more about race than the British. It’s much more of a conversation here.

There are things that people tend to – I don’t know if it’s because of some age-old historical reason. I don’t know if it’s about which skin color is more popular, but fall has a bit of that in this club. Mercedes hopes she can dance for a certain person but everyone points the finger at Autumn Night who can’t even dance. Everyone wants to spend their money on it.

There are also times when the conversation is quite loud on that note. The things that are said by Mercedes and Uncle Clifford, “Autumn just sits there, looking light.” I said to Katori, “Autumn doesn’t ask to dance for these people. She does not ask for these privileges. So is there a way in this space, where people tolerate this, to talk about it and discuss it? To have that become part of the conversation outside of just watching the show, I think is fantastic.

This season we see a lot more of that, along with some of the other characters. Autumn finally puts on those big shoes and says, “Hey, I don’t like it when you say those things about me.” It’s not something I do. I think it’s great that we have a platform as black women, black people to discuss these things for the black community and the world itself.

You are friends with British actress Nathalie Emmanuel. She said that after doing game of thrones, people came to her with projects containing nudity that she deemed gratuitous. I was wondering if that concerns you.

I think usually when you take on a certain role and people see you in that space, they’re like, “Oh! Well, she does that. We want to put her in there because we know she does that. It’s just a general thing. You don’t want to be locked into a role. I’ve done that all my life where I had to say no to so many things because people were so comfortable seeing me play a certain character. But if you want a career with lots of different roles and doing different things, it’s important to make those choices and not do the same thing all the time.

When it comes to nudity, a lot of the roles I’ve played and been for have the aspect of nudity. I did sex scenes, I danced naked. I have no doubt that things will come that have the same level of nudity. I don’t worry because in the end it’s my choice and I know I have a lot more to give. But I love the work I do because I can tell stories about all kinds of people. I don’t particularly want to tell the same story over and over again. I did it in such a special way with P-Valley, playing Autumn Night, that will probably be my one and only role. Hopefully in the future there will be an array of other characters that I can put my clothes on a bit.

What are you waiting for the public to see this second season?

I want them to see how honest we are with the pandemic stuff. I’m excited because so many people will relate. And yes, we have already seen it on screen. There have been movies. I know people watched it. But for me, it’s different when people have had a relationship with these people. People had a relationship with Uncle Clifford, Autumn Night, and Mississippi. This world just felt like part of them. What is this place like with a pandemic? What are these people doing to still exist in this space, to live and overcome the problems they already have. How do they like people? How do they maintain their friendships?

Of all, it’s how the relationships went with these characters. Autumn Night/Uncle Clifford is a whole new dynamic. Maybe not the best. But we like explosive stuff. I think people will appreciate how things turn out between the two. Then we have Mississippi and the relationship with her daughter. I’m so invested in the characters here and the storytelling. Can’t wait for fans to get stuck.

TOPICS: P Valley

Jessica C. Bell