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P-Valley’s J. Alphonse Nicholson on Showing Lil Murda’s Tender Side

Photo: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Down in the fictional Mississippi Delta town of Chucalissa, in the rich world surrounding a strip club and the people connected to it, there’s always something brewing. In episode four of the Starz series P-Valley, “Demethrius,” the recurring theme of what it means to survive and the ways that takes shape reached new heights in a sex scene that’s equal parts tender and subversive, as J. Alphonse Nicholson’s Lil Murda, the southern-to-the-bone rapper you can’t help but root for, and his longtime friend turned tour security Big Teak (John Clarence Stewart) find respite with each other.

As Big Teak comes undone from the trauma of navigating anti-Blackness — from everyday indignities to the aftereffects of prison to the normalization of hearing audio and video of Black people being brutalized and killed — Lil Murda offers him a moment of solace in the form of sex. The intimacy and escapism shared between the two go far beyond the physical act itself while posing a question rarely asked of TV and film audiences: How does it feel to be consumed by the trauma of being conscious and Black in an anti-Black world and still keep going?

The actors, both of whom are seasoned theater performers, gently hold a lens to the wear and tear anti-Black racism can wreak on the mind and spirit with guidance from superstar playwright and series creator Katori Hall, co–executive producer and co-writer Patrik-Ian Polk (who has a penchant for crafting swoon-worthy scenes centering queer Black men), and Cierra “Shooter” Glaudé on director duty doing what needed to be done and then some. On a call with Vulture, Nicholson filled us in on the powerful scene, what makes playing P-Valley’s burgeoning rap star so creatively nourishing, and how it feels being at the center of a groundbreaking television moment.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The tenderness Lil Murda extends when he sees that Teak is sort of unraveling and being swallowed up by the trauma of dealing with anti-Blackness is so layered. 
There’s so many layers to it. I think Lil Murda is in love with Uncle Clifford, and he wants to continue to find himself with her and explore that relationship. But he also realizes the friendship and the brotherhood that he has with Teak and knows the relief that Teak needs and then also probably the relief that Lil Murda needs for himself. You know, there might have been some selfish reasons in there, but at the same time, I think it was very selfless to come in and comfort his friend and comfort his ex-lover, his once-companion. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything on TV like that before.

It made me think a lot about survival and the different ways that trauma manifests for Black people, and then the understanding Black folk are met with or denied while navigating that.
Big Teak and Lil Murda absolutely have found themselves in a very complex situation. From the time Big Teak gets out, Lil Murda is figuring out how he’s gonna explain to him that he’s moved on. You know, then Big Teak having to realize the world is so different. And then dealing with not only the pandemic and the constant killing of Black Americans but also like, Damn, I gotta see my boy semi-famous and all these women crawling over him — and him kinda having this thing with Ms. Mississippi. Teak’s mind is probably going back and forth with that, probably wondering when they’re gonna have time and space to be alone and fighting for that space.

Surviving is imperative in P-Valley, and that’s something you see throughout the entire season. You do your best to survive, and we’ll see Big Teak, Lil Murda, all these characters maneuver through that survival in a different way. I think how we see Lil Murda do it this season is just epic, for lack of a better word.

What was your process for establishing the onscreen chemistry with John Clarence Stewart and making the dynamic between Lil Murda and Big Teak feel lived in?
Just trusting our process and knowing that we both come from the theater background, where you really just have to sit in the work and breathe and believe, as I like to say. So us kind of putting our nerves to the side and saying, You know what, let’s tell the story; let’s tell it correctly. John is a constant professional so knowing that we’re both gonna bring our best every day made it pretty seamless.

Sex scenes are just uncomfortable — it doesn’t matter what your sexual preference is or who you like or what you like, it’s just uncomfortable because there are so many people in the room and lights and cameras and all these things. But we knew we had a job to do. I got a real feeling that we both understood that we were gonna make history. We both felt what that energy was gonna be and locked in and got it done.

In this season and the first, there are these tender moments with Lil Murda that just pull at the heartstrings. Do you see a tension or disconnect with who Lil Murda is on the inside and how some people may view him based on the face and body tats, being a rapper, doing time, etc.?
Yeah. The range and the complexity of Lil Murda is one of my favorite parts of being able to play him. The music and all those different things that come with it. I feel like Lil Murda is very confident in who he is, and as far as the flashiness and the bravado, that’s a part of him too. Obviously the gangsta-type mentality, that street mentality, that’s all part of who he is.

That soft side — that tender, loving side that we see of him — is also a part of who he is. It’s just when you’re in more of an intimate space with him you see that. But I don’t think he’s ashamed of that; I don’t think he tries to hide that from the world. I think the only thing that he is apprehensive about, and for very valid reasons, is obviously his life could be in danger. The stigma that the community places on people like Lil Murda who may seem a certain type of way but have a love and affection toward the same sex, you know, get all this hatred spewed toward them. I think he’s more afraid of that rather than afraid of just being completely who he is. I think there’s a part of him that yearns to be free, yearns to be completely seen and heard and wants to kind of be that voice to a certain extent.

He’s like an onion. Great storytellers — you know, Pulitzer Prize–winning storytellers like Katori Hall — they do that. They have a way of creating these very dense characters where you’re just gonna keep peeling back layers and kind of be surprised, and like an onion, sometimes we get moved to tears. It’s really beautiful.

What is one parallel you see between yourself and your character?
On the storytelling side of it, the actor side of it, that’s kind of how I feel about it, too. You get a little scared and fearful about what’s going to be said about you or what type of predicament you may put yourself in, but I had to remind myself of my brothers and sisters and everyone in between who take that walk every day in real life, and it’s not fictional. And so knowing that that risk has to be taken is so similar to what Lil Murda — I think he’s understanding what his role is as an individual within society and with his community. There’s a fear factor to it, but I think he wants to step up and approach the plate.

I have to ask about Lil Murda’s onscreen boo, Uncle Clifford. So many people are rooting for them, including me! What do you think draws those two characters to each other?
I think they see a part of themselves in each other. They can relate to each other as far as the bravado and flashiness and being able to capture a room. And then just how they see each other, it’s very genuine. They have a true affection for each other. I think they know they’re both taking a risk to a certain extent but are willing to take that risk for each other.

On the business aspect, Lil Murda has this incredible will to get to where he wants to go, and so does Uncle Clifford. She has to keep her club; she has to be the mother to these young women who are working at the club and all the patrons. They both have this caretaker spirit as well as this kind of tunnel vision where they’re gonna be sure to see their goals through. I think that’s what draws them to each other and then just that natural affection people have when they like each other.

I’ve heard fans of the show share a variety of reasons they appreciate the world of P-Valley. What has playing Lil Murda given you?
It’s given me so much confidence in who I am as an actor and who I am as a storyteller. It’s given me the ability to truly understand who I am as an ally to my brothers and sisters and everyone in between in the LGBTQ+ community. It’s given me this opportunity to show an incredible range that I don’t think I’ve had the opportunity to show, and I just hope I continue to get the opportunity to show that. I’ve been blessed with some really incredible roles — you know, the Just Mercys of the world and the film They Cloned Tyrone that’s coming out next and even back to my stage days with A Solider’s Play and that winning a Tony.

But P-Valley has definitely been the largest opportunity and the largest platform to show who I am completely as an actor. I just learned so much from Lil Murda as far as seeing yourself in the mirror and knowing who you want to be and being confident in your walk and understanding that you’re going to have trials and tribulations, ups and downs, but keeping your head up and making it through those things. Things that I already knew but that were refreshed and affirmed working on the show.

P-Valley’s J. Alphonse Nicholson on Lil Murda’s Tender Side