Harriett D. Foy Knows Her Character on “P-Valley” Isn’t Likable; That’s the Point

Harriett D. Foy

Harriett D. Foy currently plays Patrice Woodbine on P-Valley, the new television show on Starz. It’s her first series regular role, and she plays the mother of Mercedes (played by Brandee Evans), one of the main characters on the show. Mercedes works at the Pynk, a Black-owned strip club in Mississippi, which throws her into conflict with her mother, who is ultra-religious and wants to lead her own church.

Foy knows Patrice isn’t the most likable character, which is why one of her pleasures these days is reading the Twitter comments after every episode. “There was one where they were just like, ‘I hate her. I wanted to jump through the television and beat her,'” said Foy. “And I was like, “Bring it, ‘cuz Patrice ain’t no punk.'”

She takes it all with good humor of course. “It doesn’t affect me. I just feel like I’m really doing my job then if this is how people are seeing her,” she said. In addition to her impactful performance in P-Valley, Foy’s stage resume is impressive: She’s been on Broadway in Mamma Mia! and Amelie, and Off-Broadway, she was a standout in the 2018 Off-Broadway play The House That Will Not Stand by Marcus Gardley. Plus she’s played the legendary Nina Simone on stage, twice(!), in the play Nina Simone: Four Women by Christina Ham.

On Aug. 18, Foy is going to play another historical figure: Suffragist Mary McLeod Bethune, as part of Finish the Fight, a new play by Ming Peiffer about the overlooked women of color who fought for the right to vote. The play will premiere of The New York Times’ YouTube channel.

Below, Foy talks about creating in quarantine, the joy of working on P-Valley and her pre-theater ritual.

You are going to be in Finish the Fight which is a play that Ming Peiffer wrote. I was like mind blown to think that a century ago women couldn’t vote and right now our voting rights are in so much danger. Can you talk us just a little bit about why you wanted to be part of this?

Well for me, it’s exactly like what you’re saying. It was like a history lesson. When I started looking up Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, I was like, Wow, I didn’t know she did all of that. You get one little snippet [in school]. And then I thought, well, how important is that, that we’re still fighting for some of these same things [and] that 100 years ago, we couldn’t even do it. And yet Black women were still at the back and women of color. So I was like, man, I have to do this piece, because there’s a history lesson for people now that they need to know, the younger generation and some of the older generation.

What’s it been like rehearsing something remotely, especially if you’re rehearsing a new play remotely because we see a lot of classics being done. But this is a new piece.

I’ve done a couple of readings. So I kind of had a vibe for it. The New York Times sent the equipment. So there I am trying to unfold the background. I took over my mom’s basement. I was in Maryland for seven months just because of the corona and everything. So I do it, I set up the lights, and I’m all ready to go by the time they come on. I’m literally doing like the lights like what you would have your crew do.

It was really, it was really cool. And I felt actually more free in that way just to create and do it. I had a good time. Of course there’s nothing like being in a live theatre and getting that immediate response. But I think this will last a lifetime and you can always go back to it and use it in school as a tool to teach.

Did you ever think you were going to be doing a new play in the midst of a pandemic?

I did not. So when it came about, I was like, wait, we’re gonna do what? How? I’m down. Let’s see if it works. And it did. I think it’s gonna be a really great experience. I think people will be amazed at the look of the piece. And editing is key in this, which I want to learn more about. And it just makes me want to learn more about this medium, because it seems like that’s what we’re going to be using for some time. I think you can focus more on these women who are the unsung heroes. I think you can focus more on their story, because you’re going to be up close and personal.

I want to talk about you know about that moment in The House That Will Not Stand, you know which moment. It’s always electrifying. And after watching you on stage, I wondered, knowing that you did this part for five years, how do you do something like that every night? And how do you then cleanse and release yourself from a character like that? [Eds note: we’re not going to spoil it for you, but Foy gave an electric performance as Makeda, a slave in a Creole household in the 19th century.]

That’s a great question. Thank you. When we were doing it at New Dramatists, that particular monologue wasn’t in there. So we came to the rehearsal. And Marcus came in. He always called me diva. “Diva, I got something for you.” And I was like, What? So he gave it to me. It was a five-page monologue. And I read it. I connected immediately with the words. I had never looked at it, and people thought I had looked at it the night before. And it was because it was our history. It was like every ancestor spoke to me and I could connect to it in a grounding way. It was like I was in the pocket and it just came—the rhythms that you heard, that’s how I spoke it, because I could hear the drums and all that.

At New York Theatre Workshop, I would be exhausted after the show. And Joniece [Abbott-Pratt], who played Odette, we would walk home after the show from New York Theatre Workshop. I live in Midtown and she lives in Jersey. I needed that time to decompress. And I didn’t want to be like enclosed on a bus or enclosed on the train and we would just walk and gradually release it. Because you do have to release it, because it was such an emotional journey playing Makeda, from beginning to end, being enslaved and then getting that freedom, and then trying to take care of this whole house.

I would get to the theater early and warm up; always say a prayer before I start each show. And I always celebrated one of my ancestors, as if I imagined that they watch me every night. So I call a name particularly before I started a show, and say, “This one’s for you tonight.”

Harriett D. Foy, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, and Juliana Canfield in “The House That Will Not Stand” at New York Theatre Workshop. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I think that a lot of people especially outside of New York, if people haven’t seen you on stage, are gonna get to meet you now that you’re a series regular in P-Valley. And I mean this as the utmost compliment, but Patrice is so terrifying.

Katori [Hall, the show runner and playwright] has given us the writers room, they gave us some really great lines. What I love the best about Patrice and how she’s resonating is that everybody hates her. [laughs] And Katori says, “I want you to dislike her. But I also want you to understand where she’s coming from.” I literally want to do a thing where I read mean tweets, or what they say on their reviews: “Honey, she would eat concrete. If it was me, I would have punched her dead in the face.” I’m like, what??? And so I’ll comment sometimes and they get a kick out of that. Listen, honey, Patrice is no joke.

You know, I was doing a show when the audition came, and I just really couldn’t focus the very first time it came through. I was doing Nina Simone. Then I was doing another Marcus Gardley play, A Wonder in My Soul at Baltimore Center Stage and it came around again. I said, Oh, you better pull this together. My cast mates helped me audition and stuff like that. Then I got the call: Come to New York, audition, call back.

I came to the callback. It was very emotional. I felt again, the ancestors were there with me, it was something like I’ve never felt before—I literally felt it all over. And in my mind, I was like, I think this is your part. I’ll start to cry if I think about it too much, because that’s how it felt in the moment. Katori got up and gave me a hug because I literally was overcome. And the fact that the song they asked me to sing was the same song I was singing in A Wonder in My Soul: “I Know I’ve Been Changed.”

I feel like all the roles that I played leading up to her—Princess Peyei in Amazing Grace [on Broadway], Dr. Nina Simone, Odessa [in The Young Man from Atlanta Off-Broadway], Makeda— were all forming me and shaping me to play Patrice, my first series regular.

GIF courtesy of Starz

Every time I see Patrice, I want her to come slap me and tell me that I should be ashamed of myself or something like that. I love the shows specificity. Everything feels so, like, someone showed up with a camera and just captured everyone and everything. Can you talk about what the environment is like and what it takes to create the kind of very lived-in experience, especially within the show.

That’s all due to Katori and the people that she brought on the team in terms of the crew, producers, and the cast. She was very specific about what she wanted, down to the directors being all female, which made for a very safe space that you knew you were going to be cared for, especially for our ladies who had to be in very skimpy clothing and really do some very intimate scenes. We had an intimacy coordinator—we were having problems, they would come and we’d have a conversation about it and how it was going to be shot. It was a very open space in terms of Katori listening to us and how we thought about our characters.

It was just a really wonderful time. Being at the Tyler Perry Studios was great. And the scripts, and the way [Katori] defined these characters is just like nothing else I’ve seen in a while, except for Marcus Gardley, of course, because you know, I’m partial.

There’s nothing like it. And everybody feels that way. Everybody in the cast feels that way. We talk about it all the time. We call ourselves family. We have our own little private group that we talk to each other constantly. We get along, we love hanging out with each other. So I’m just saying it was all love. So it makes your job easy. It wasn’t like work.

Since you live between both worlds of stage and television, I wonder what from the stage that you love would you bring to TV. And what from TV that you love would you bring to theater?

From stage to the TV, I think it’s the discipline. That is the key for me, this is how I live my life, in terms of a body, in terms of voice, in terms of how I prepare, and I think that helps with the amount of time that you have to spend setting up a shot. So you’re always ready every time they say, “action.” I think of it as that’s always the take. For me, that eight shows a week, every time is the take.

The last episode that you saw [Eds note: episode 5 where Patrice finds herself in prison and she starts sermonizing and singing], I specifically did not want to pre-record it. I want it to be in the moment. Even if she’s tired, even if we do it for the 12th take and that’s her voice, that’s her truth in that moment. Because it wasn’t gonna work if I’m trying to sing to a track, and I’m trying to take you through this emotion to give you the history of Patrice in P-Valley. Such an emotional episode.

From television to [theater], I think really focusing on that internal, just being in that moment—just real and not judging. And there’s a little more freedom in that. I mean, it’s the same work. It’s the same work and time: how you have to prepare, how you have to create a background for your character, create a book, you know, all that kind of stuff.

Listen to the rest of the conversation on the Token Theatre Friends podcast.

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