Nicco Annan on the “Unapologetically Authentic” Show ‘P-Valley’ & the Power of Uncle Clifford

     September 6, 2020

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From creator Katori Hall, the Starz drama series P-Valley (which has already been renewed for a second season) is set deep in the Mississippi Delta at a strip club filled with women whose personalities are as big as their platform heels are tall. While The Pynk is barely keeping its doors open, owner Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) — who is non-binary and uses she/her pronouns —  is constantly trying to work enough magic to keep it going and keep her club family together.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Nicco Annan talked about the fabulousness of Uncle Clifford, forming this character and letting her grow from the stage play to the TV series, not feeling beholden to any one thing when it comes to where Uncle Clifford fits in, finding her incredible sense of style, the complicated dynamic with Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), the importance of humanizing the inhabitants of this world, and how honored he would be to be able to dance Uncle Clifford off into her sunset, after a few more seasons.

COLLIDER: I love this show and this cast, and your character is fantastic!

NICCO ANNAN: I first met one of our directors, Tamra Davis, who directed Episode 4, when we were in the middle of shooting Episode 3. They were walking around the set and they introduced me to her, and she just gasped and was like, “Oh, my God, I get it. This is like Game of Thrones.” And I turned around and was like, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Every room in this club is its own system. It has a whole other vibe and its own set of rules.”

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Image via Starz

Uncle Clifford’s office operates very much as the head place, but if you look at it, it also looks like your grandpa’s or grandmother’s room, which has all of this nostalgia around it, and Uncle Clifford ain’t necessarily the neatest person. But all of that comes from the backstory of the character, whether you call it hoarding or whether you call it holding onto family memorabilia. I love how the world of our show incorporates the truth and the reality of how people really live. Being able to see in the set production has been everything. Jeff Pratt Gordon was our production design coordinator, and he made this place so real to live in that it was literally an actor’s dream. You’re walking not only back in time, but you’re in another space. So, when you’re in that office, you know what goes down in that office. It has a lot of memories, for me, of my actual grandparents’ home, with the wooden panels. They would put old wooden panels up, instead of painting the wall and say, “Well, this will last longer,” and have old velvet couches and leather chairs that have been worked on and re-upholstered. I just loved all of that. Those little nuances really helped me to bring the world to life. There are different ecosystems throughout the club, and I love that.

In a story and on a show about strippers and stripping, Uncle Clifford has become a stand-out character. What did you think about this character when you first met her on the page? What was the initial impression of her when you first started playing Uncle Clifford, even stretching back to the initial encounter in the play?

ANNAN: When I met Uncle Clifford, in the first couple of pages that I read from the play, it told me that this was something very different than I’d ever seen before, on stage. At that point, I was just thinking about the stage production. I thought that this character would bring so much life beyond what I saw. At that point in time, the characters that stood out to me were Miss Roj in The Colored Museum, different things I’d seen on TV, like Tootsie and Bosom Buddies, and Meshach Taylor in that cult classic Mannequin. So, I thought about those roles. That’s what came into my head.

When I first read the sides, it was maybe only four to five pages and Katori said, “I’m really interested in this concept of a person that can accept and access all of their femininity and all of their masculinity, and what that would look like, in a person, and not be beholden to societal conditioning and things like that.” And I was like, “Oh, that sounds cool as shit.” Being a gay man, I was just like, “This is a freaking opportunity of a lifetime, to be able to bring some humanity to my community and to be able to really see the inside of Uncle Clifford, so that could spill over.”

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Image via Starz

My hope and desire was that, if you could get to know who she is on the inside, for all of her beauty and all of her monster, you will be able to maybe have more empathy when you’re walking down the street, or you’re meeting people at the grocery store, or you encounter someone on your timeline and you don’t approach them with that same bias. You just have an opportunity to know who this character is. Even people that are in positions of power, when they’re creating policies maybe they can go, “I’m more connected to the community through Uncle Clifford.” Maybe they live in Alaska and don’t personally have any non-binary people, or gay or lesbian people, or anyone from the trans community around them. Being on television, I’m seeing it as a way in not only for my community but for people that are outside the community that can develop a level of empathy and understanding. I was able, as an actor, to learn more about Uncle Clifford and the non-binary and genderfluid members of my community. It caused me, as an actor, to turn my eye and attention to members of the community that can be overlooked. Honestly, for me, as a black gay man, it was something that was just a given. In my world, you don’t always have to quantify things. If you show me who you are, then I’m good and I can operate accordingly. But we live in this world, in America, that has to say, “You are this, and you are that.” Understanding those parameters has been a process, and I think it’s a process for everyone, to understand how we can communicate and talk with one another.

There is no way to categorize a character like Uncle Clifford.

ANNAN: Which I love because I don’t feel beholden to any one thing or the other. When I’m playing Uncle Clifford, I’m able to access my male privilege that I know exists in society. And I’m also able to tap into the strength of my femininity, which I know has a power of understanding and power of persuasion as well.

Uncle Clifford has an incredible sense of style, with the wardrobe, hair, and nails, but then you’ve also got your beard, which is a balance that says a lot about the character.

ANNAN: The looks, the hair, the nails, the make-up, and the wardrobe were all intentional. I sat down with each of the departments and really shared my visions. It was really lovely to be able to have the experience of playing this character from the stage, and really originating her and creating her, from the ground up. I was able to not only learn lines, but I was able to learn who she is. As Nicco, I went on a journey with Uncle Clifford as she was growing. I had been in the hair salons when we were doing the play in Minneapolis, and we were trying on different wigs and having the stylist cut things. I actually got half of my wardrobe for the play from the hair salon. People would come into the hair salon, selling CDs and things like that, and there was a woman who came in that was selling leggings. I said, “What else do you have in that suitcase?” and she had some tops and some dresses. My costume designer for the play was with me at the time and we got some of the costumes from the barbershop. I wanted to be able to uplift what we have, but I also wanted it to be something that was rooted in so much truth.

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Image via Starz

It wasn’t that Uncle Clifford was living a drag lifestyle or being a drag queen. This is literally who she is. I always posed the question, “What would you wear? Because they were all black women, I would say, “This is how I’m feeling today. What would you wear?” We would pull all of these clothes, and we would go into the wardrobe room as if I was in the mall, and I would shop and pick and put things together. They were so in tune with what the subconscious of Uncle Clifford was, for that day. That’s what fashion, hair, and make-up are really all for. I wasn’t taking it from the perspective of, “Let me try to look more feminine.” It was more about letting me express how I felt that day. So, when Uncle Clifford is trying to be in a happier mood or lift her spirits, sometimes the looks can be a little bit more outrageous because she’s trying to bring some joy into her life, the same way that a straight man is gonna wear some colorful socks with his straight-laced suit and Brooks Brothers tie. It’s a little bit of color, or what we call some pizzaz. It helps you get over the day or the different emotional obstacles that she deals with. That’s how it came to be, for me.

As complicated as Uncle Clifford’s life is – and she really is struggling and not really wanting to tell anybody how much she’s struggling – she finds herself in a complicated relationship dynamic with Lil Murda. What was that like to explore and play with?

ANNAN: That aspect was familiar, to be honest with you. Sometimes when someone is so bold and chooses to live their life in a way, whether that’s in a genderfluid expression or whether that is in leaving home and not coming back – and not because something traumatic happened, but because you have a goal, or you wanna see the world and travel – and people live so boldly, that is attractive to people, and that’s what people are stunted by when they wonder how to do that for themselves.

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Image via Starz

So, having left Detroit at 17 and going to New York, despite not knowing where the jobs were gonna come from, I was like, “I just have to go.” I have no idea where that came from. It was something that was in me since I was a kid. It wasn’t a dream or a fantasy, but it was the plan. I got good grades in school and I was going to college, but I was going to college in New York because I knew what I wanted to do when I was done with school. I had all of these plans. But even in that, I can feel how people look at Uncle Clifford what that same thing of, “Wow, you’re just bold, huh?” And I chose to keep the beard because we’re in the South, and I knew that this is not a gay club and it’s not a drag show club. This is a strip club, where you can get a piece of paradise and where all of your fantasies can come true. Just like my office has one set of systems and rules, and the locker room has another, so do each of my rooms, from my champagne room to my VIP room, to my paradise room. Having met Lil Murda in that room of paradise said something to me, in the story, and said something to the audience. It’s a place of, “This could happen. You can choose this. It can be just this simple.”

I think that Katori, through the storyline, is really trying to expose us, as an audience, to a sense of normalcy that doesn’t always exist, and people in the community and that are adjacent to the community are having moments of epiphanies. Maybe men and women in a position like Lil Murda are expressing. People always jump to the whole thing of someone being on the low, but why can someone not be pansexual and exploring that. What sexuality looks like on a black body, in general, is part of this whole revolutionary thing that’s happening with the show. You don’t always get to see black bodies in such layered complex work, and that’s how I, Nicco Annan, live every day. I dance and negotiate between those complexities, whether that’s between the law, church, families, or occupational choice. That’s what I would say to that.

I honestly just love how deep a show about strippers can get.

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Image via Starz

ANNAN: Listen, I know! I’ve been telling people that it’s so not surface. What I love is that this is life. I think people are really able to react to the fact that this is a world that was built in truth, and it always has been. We, the audience, America, and cable TV are just able to see it now. It’s not a watered-down version. One of the things that I’m most proud of with this show is the fact that I’m a part of something that is so unapologetically authentic. It’s through that lens that people are attracted to it. You can talk about the COVID of it all and this pandemic that we’re here, but everyone’s privileges have been taken away, to a certain extent. We’ve all been stripped down, and people are more empathetic and they’re ready to tap in and be like, “Oh, this is what I’ve been missing this entire time.” It’s the same way that some mothers are finally able to be home with their children for four days, consecutively, and not have to pay for child care because of this whole thing. It only makes sense that people are more willing to open up their hearts and their minds to people that may be other than them, or just like them. There are people within the community that doesn’t see their majestic beauty either. It’s not just outside.

It’s really important, how much this show really humanizes the characters and this world.

ANNAN: I agree. I totally agree with that. People are watching this show and they’re like, “Oh, this isn’t what I thought it was.” People will be like, “I’ve never even been to a strip club, but you know how those people are.” They’ve been judging a thing for so long, and they’ve never been, but they have such vehement opinions about it. That’s the thing that’s so asinine to me. Going to strip clubs is a part of Southern culture. I grew up in Detroit, which we call up South, as opposed to down South. All of my grandparents came from the South, so I grew up with strip club culture, and understanding the difference between black strip club culture and white strip club. The white strip clubs were more mainstream and commercial. The black strip clubs weren’t in a big building with a lot of lights and marquees, and all that stuff. They would be in a shopping plaza, in a little hole in the wall kind of a place, but so many people went there to celebrate, whether it was birthdays or bridal showers.

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Image via Starz

The first time I went to a strip club, I went with a group of girls and they were like, “Come on, we want some steak.” It was after we went to another club, and these were my straight girls, and they wanted some steak. I was like, “Oh, okay.”  But it was so much fun. That’s why straight people like to go to gay clubs. They realize that it’s all about freedom and expression. In the world, day-to-day, we don’t have the same level of freedom, so you wanna swing the pendulum to the total other side and live in such freedom and express that. That’s what’s going on in the club. And to experience that on a level that uses visuals, sexuality, and intimacy, and the transferring of how you are in power when you are dancing versus people thinking they are in power. Just that whole dance, in and of itself, is so interesting. As a performer in a club, as Uncle Clifford is and the girls are, it literally is like flight. Of all things, Uncle Clifford chose to create a strip club. Why is it not a drag club or a restaurant? She is a dancer and her need for that unbridled freedom is why the women fly on the pole.

It’s why, in the design, everything is so intentional. There’s always a feather somewhere, as a nod to flight. I was able to experience the little nuances in my life, as a gay man, and then, in the research when I was creating her, I really spent a lot of time with non-binary members of the community. I did a deep dive on social media, really looking at what was missing, and what was missing, for me, was understanding why she had that clap back, like that. Why does she have to be so defensive? She has to be so defensive because, whether it’s violence against her or discrimination, that could happen. When I did the play, I didn’t have nails because where the theater was from where I was staying, the distance was too far and it was too dangerous of a route and I knew, even as a gay man, I would be putting my life in a different kind of danger that I would have to stand up for. To have that impact rammed over me was huge. I was like, “You’ve gotta carry that with you when you play this role because that’s what Uncle Clifford deals with.” She is quick-witted, but because she chooses to have her hands adorned with these talons, there’s a cost that comes with it. There is a cost to this freedom that she has. Sometimes that prevents her from having as much joy or allowing herself to experience love, on all levels. You get so busy taking care of everybody else that you forget to take care of yourself.

This is a character that you’ve been living with for a while. When I spoke to showrunner Katori Hall, she told me that she could see these characters and what they were doing five years from now and that she hoped she’d be able to help walk them into their sunset. How do you feel about continuing to play Uncle Clifford for a while longer? Do you feel like there are still a lot of layers to peel back?

ANNAN: That would be remarkable. That would be an honor. I look forward to that. I’m at a little bit of a pause just because it’s really happening. You live with something for so long, and just to see it manifest in this way, I truly hope that she gets to dance into the sunset. Not only is that a beautiful sentiment — the way you put it — but to also be able to bring such a road map of what possibly could be, for so many people.

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Image via Starz

It is easy to forget how visibility works. I have always been a gay man, but I have not always waved a rainbow flag. Not out of any shame, but because that’s just who I am. The only time I’ve had an American flag was when my grandfather had it outside of the house, on the flagpole, because he was a veteran. I never thought that I had to prove to anyone that I am. This is me. This is who I am. So, that level of confidence definitely spills over into Uncle Clifford, but I do know and I am well aware that people are able to see her and to see her journey and see that, as a way of a different experience, to possibly just live, whether that is looking at how the LGBTQ community on the show exists with the heterosexual members of the show and how there is a cohesive bond there. There isn’t a cantankerous relationship. They accept each other and keep it moving. There are times when you do see the homophobia, and you do see and feel the misogyny. It’s not a utopian world. It’s a very real world that has corrective language and corrective behavior. To be able to see that is very powerful. Sometimes straight people need to see that it’s really that simple.

For me, personally, I have members of my community – Black people that are straight, but that have been open-minded and that are seeking to help – asking about the expansion, in terms of not just Black Lives Matter, now Black Trans Lives Matter. It’s not taking away from one or the other. It’s expanding the conversation, saying that those members of the community deserve to be seen, as well. It is not saying anything different. We know that all lives matter, but we are specifying this, right now, to highlight it. So, I would love to be able to dance into the sunset with Uncle Clifford. It’s a way that you can just peek behind the make-believe and see what’s real. You’ve gotta dance to keep from crying.

The P-Valley Season 1 finale airs tonight, September 6, on Starz at 8/7c. For more, check out our interview with P-Valley showrunner Katori Hall.

Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.

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