Before Brandee Evans transformed into Mercedes, the take-no-sh** OG pole dancer on P-Valley, she had 13 acting credits (over the course of eight years) to her name, one of which was a one-liner in 2017’s New Edition Story. Evans knew the NE role would lead to another. It did. Robi Reed, casting director and VP of Talent & Casting of Original Programming at BET, fought for Evans to get shot as Tina Brown (Bobby’s sister) in The Bobby Brown Story. Prior to landing those popular biopics, the Memphis beauty’s parts were so small that “if you blinked you missed me,” she says, chuckling at the memory during a Zoom call.
Nailing those one-liners led to a starring role in the Starz network’s binge-worthy show. Now, Evans is responsible for pages and pages of dialogue, including sharing sage wisdom as the dancer with 20 stacks to slide her way out of the spotlight. Because as Mercedes told Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), the owner and HBIC of The Pynk strip club, “25 is the age strippers retire.”
Evans embodies the role, which includes keeping her mama (played by Harriet D. Foy) in check, shutting down patrons who feel some type of way about paying for lap dances and leading a dance team of teen girls. But the opportunity to breathe life into Mercedes almost eluded the brown skin girl.
“I was told that I didn’t fit any of the descriptions…. So I’m like, maybe it’s because I have this big, curly fro. So I hit up my girl Tia to make me a wig. I was sitting there with my friend and natural hairstylist Sasha and some measuring tape—the kind you get at Home Depot—measuring my head on FaceTime,” Evans says. Tia came through with a bomb wig and shipped it to L.A. “But they still wouldn’t let me in the room for the audition.”
The trained dancer and choreographer, who has performed on global stages and toured with Lil Wayne, refused to take no for an answer. Walking away from the project created by award-winning playwright and showrunner Katori Hall, would have been too easy. Being homeless? That’s hard. And she’s been there. Not making rent? Now that’s hard too. Thankfully, Evans had a good girlfriend who helped her pay her rent for almost a decade.
Evans had too much in common with Mercedes to give up, right down to being a preacher’s kid with southern fried roots and a thorny relationship with her mama. As luck would have it, a tape of Evans dancing (submitted by her manger) got her a seat at the table. This time Evans brought the wig with her and even carried it to set when it was time to shoot the pilot. But the bone straight headpiece isn’t seen on-screen because Mercedes wasn’t rocking bangs in Episode 1.
What Mercedes does rock is that pole. In the first episode we see her scale it and slam her heels into the ceiling using muscles and superpowers Wonder Woman could only dream about. “Our choreographer Jamaica Craft got me together because this was not ‘Dancing Brandee’ or even tour life Brandee,” Evans shares, admitting that she’s still learning the names of certain moves. “If I could do the head slides, I promise you, I probably would’ve tried it, but it was against my contract and keeping me safe, which I appreciate, but the daredevil in me just wants to do everything. My double [Spyda] is amazing. Every double I have is amazing,” Evans gushes.
That’s Spyda on the ceiling in the pilot episode. But that is Evans doing the surfboard, the trick where she’s standing on top of another dancer. The former high school English department chair says she has natural upper body strength, but she does give her guns a good workout. For her, freaking the athletic moves isn’t about how toned her arms are, it’s about properly using her legs and core muscles.
While Evans is comfortable with the shows artful nudity (thanks to eight women directors at the helm), it has helped her to fall in love again with her thick thighs that save lives. “I’m embracing the stretch marks, embracing the cellulite and all that is beauty and natural. Everybody ain’t perfectly smooth. You are not a baby,” says Evans. “Now, I’m more comfortable with my body and I don’t care what people think. Everybody has an opinion. I don’t need your validation.”
It’s one thing for it not to work out, but it’s another to give up without trying everything first.
This is new territory for the actress. She comes from a dance world where girls were weighed every Friday. If she didn’t “make weight” she’d be ridiculed for coke-bottles curves and being built just like her mother. These days Evans celebrates that she gets it from her mama.
It’s been 11 years since Evans resigned from Southwind High School in Memphis. She was terrified as she sat on a bunk in Lil Wayne’s tour bus and wrote the letter terminating her teaching career. It was a risky move to leave benefits and stability, but education wasn’t her dream job. And she believed that dreams don’t have an expiration date.
Evans promised herself that if she got the opportunity to be an actress she’d take it. And she cried each time she lost a job to another person, but wouldn’t give up until she exhausted all the possibilities. “I felt like if I didn’t keep pushing, I would’ve been a loser to myself. I don’t like to lose in life. I don’t like to lose in competitions. It’s one thing for it not to work out, but it’s another to give up without trying everything first.”
Spoken like a true hustler.
Taiia Smart Young (@taiiasmartyoung) is an award-winning author, editor and speaker. She lives in New York.