*Spoilers for P-Valley S2: Ep. 6 “Savage” throughout*
P-Valley fans witnessed the end of an amazing and pivotal story arc during season 2’s 6th episode, with the tragic exit of Big Teak. Though his death by suicide touched on a sensitive topic and was perhaps triggering for some viewers, his arc opens the doors of discussion on the taboo of mental health and Black men.
July is BIPOC Mental Health Month, and the second half of P-Valley’s second season is coincidentally coinciding with back-to-back episodes highlighting various themes dealing with mental health within the Black community. Starting with episode 5’s focus on the effects of domestic violence and abuse on the character of Keyshawn/Miss Mississippi, the exploration continued in episode 6 with the trauma, grief, and eventual suicide of Big Teak, Lil Murda’s longtime friend and secret former love interest.
The character of Big Teak, portrayed by John Clarence Stewart, highlights several taboo topics surrounding Black men’s mental health. Coming off a ten-year prison bid, he was already having a hard time acclimating both to life on the outside and life in the modern age, before you toss factors like COVID-19 and a racial reckoning – which tested the mental fortitude of just about everyone – into the mix. Compound that with intense childhood trauma and closeted sexuality, and you have a recipe for disaster if gone unchecked.
For Stewart, the role of Big Teak was an opportunity to shine a light on the nuances and potential tragedies of navigating a mental health crisis without support or assistance – an all-too-real scenario for many Black men. It even spoke to some of the actor’s own struggles.
“You get to see a Black man without tools, without help,’ Stewart exclusively told ESSENCE about his character. “For me, as a Black man who navigates depression and anxiety and has experienced at times in my life darkness and thoughts of darkness and things of that nature, it’s all on a gradient and a scale. I’m not Teak and Teak is not me, but there are elements of his experience of feeling inside of his skin in the world and feeling so unknown, so unseen [that resonate]. There is not a place for him that’s, one, safe and [in his mind] there’s just not a place for him at all.”
Though therapy, seeking help, and actively tending to one’s mental health have grown in popularity within our community in recent years, Black men in particular still tend to experience barriers both in access to and attitude toward professional mental health assistance, according to Mental Health America.
“There is such a stigma about mental health, about the idea of getting help,” Stewart continued. “I feel like a lot of times we only acknowledge scars that we can see on the skin. There’s not a lot of language and not a lot of compassion for scars that are in the heart. Teak is just a man with a whole heap of scars on his heart. And when he encounters Murda again, it’s someone who, when he is with Murda, those hardened scars, they soften.”
“But I think the thing that’s really difficult about that is scars, when they soften, you can be bruised again, and you can be bruised easily. There are a lot of different things that open up again and Teak doesn’t have the language, he doesn’t have the support necessary to process and to not feel alone.”
For Katori Hall, show creator and writer, touching on the traumatic and taboo through P-Valley has always been a method of catharsis and self-examination for not only the audience but the writing staff. She says the authenticity of the characters and their individual struggles is only achieved by the writers’ willingness to hold up a mirror to their own lived experiences.
“My work has always, always been brutally honest. I’ve never, ever written anything that doesn’t really lift the veil on very uncomfortable issues or topics,” Hall told ESSENCE during a conversation just days before the episode aired. “When you have writers that are that brave and are willing to use their own pain and their own traumatic experiences as a way to lend authenticity to these fictional characters, that I think is the reason why these storylines are hitting so hard. It’s stemming from writers who are willing to open a vein up on the page and douse it so that other people can really feel the real that we put into every episode that we write.”
But that brutal honesty is often hard for viewers to digest. One recent love scene in particular, between Big Teak and Lil Murda on P-Valley episode 4, had social media abuzz with balks, disapproval, and threats to quit watching the show due to the “shock” of an intimate scene between two cis-het-passing men. Though it was far from the first scene depicting homosexual intimacy on the show and mostly implied (no explicit depictions of sexual acts nor frontal nudity was featured), fans still claimed to have been taken aback by the supposedly “graphic” nature of the scene. But both Stewart and Hall suspect the root of the issue truly lies elsewhere.
“I think it was [everyone’s] intention for it to be a scene about intimacy and love between these two men. I think it’s unfortunate that that kind of display of love and affection can be so triggering to a lot of people,” Stewart said. “But that said, whenever a question like this comes, the one thing I want to do is redirect it to the people it was meant for. The scene was written for these Black men in my community. And so many people have reached out to me and talked about how they feel seen, how they haven’t ever seen two masculine representing Black men be this soft with one another. That makes me feel like we did right by them, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Hall says that she knew the reactions were on the way the moment the scene was written on the page. But aside from is
“I think what has been really surprisingly controversial, but not surprising if we understand how people view sexuality in the Black community, is the fact that these men presented as being hyper-masculine and not gay at all,” she said. “I also think, unfortunately, we as Black folks are not used to seeing intimacy. We’ve been inundated with visuals of us having sex, but [not] true intimacy where you see people taking care of each other and there’s consent and there’s this immense amount of love and tenderness. Those images are rare.”
“With these two characters, these men who move in this hyper-masculine way through the world, there is a softness and an intimate quality that they exist between each other that feels almost, to some people in our community, that seems almost forbidden,” Stewart agreed. “And I think that’s really sad and unfortunate.”
All in all, Stewart feels honored to have had the opportunity to challenge viewers’ perspectives and bring some issues not spoken about often enough to the forefront, and do it all in just a handful of episodes.
“In a very short amount of time, he gets to experience so many parts of his humanity. And I’m grateful for that gift. Usually, as an actor, you have to be on a show for a very long time to get the opportunity to live in a character and move through the things that Teak gets to move through in just five episodes,” Stewart observed. “That is a gift that I don’t take for granted, and above all else, I take it very, very seriously, the responsibility of representing Teak and his story. His story is like that of so many Black men that I know, that I grew up with.”
“There are specific people in my mind and in my heart, some that succumbed to the darkness, some that are still making their way through. But, I’m grateful that he is now in the cannon of TV and that he’s a part of this epic story of P-Valley.”