HL spoke with ‘P-Valley’s Nicco Annan about Uncle Clifford’s life outside of the club, how the show ‘shatters’ stereotypes, Uncle Clifford’s dynamic with Autumn, and more.
P-Valley is undoubtedly the best new show of the summer. The Starz series, created by Katori Hall, follows the lives of those working at The Pynk, a strip club in rural Mississippi. Nicco Annan stars as Uncle Clifford, the queer, non-binary owner of The Pynk. There’s no doubt about it, Uncle Clifford (preferred gender pronoun is “she”) is the heart and soul of The Pynk.
HollywoodLife talked EXCLUSIVELY with Nicco about bringing this character from the stage to the screen. He teased that Uncle Clifford’s backstory will be explored and “all aspects” of her life. Nicco also discussed how the show will tackle what it means to be Black and queer in the South. Read our full Q&A below.
You played the role of Uncle Clifford in the play before this TV show was created. When Katori [Hall] was in the process of making the show, was it even a question whether or not you would play Uncle Clifford? What were those conversations like?
Nicco Annan: I think that you would have to ask her because those were conversations between each individual and God. I did have to go through the audition process when it came to the TV show. She did tell me that for network reasons they wanted to just do a wide search to make sure that they could cast — in the network’s eyes — the absolute right person. I respected that. That wasn’t something that bothered me because I felt, especially with Uncle Clifford, it’s a character that we haven’t really seen before on television. I have seen and have had many people in my life that are non-binary and that fit into the mold somewhere of Uncle Clifford, whether it was Uncle Bill or an Aunt Ruth. So that wasn’t foreign to me, but I also thought it was just an opportunity for other artists in the LGBT community to be able to be awakened just as I was that there are roles coming, that there’s representation happening. As an actor, I feel like no one can take your role from you. I feel like if you’re meant to play it, it will happen. The character kind of comes through the vessel that the character chooses. So I was very happy and pleased, of course, that I was selected. To be 100 percent honest, it wasn’t something that was in my mind when I was auditioning. What was more so in my mind when I came to my first network audition for P-Valley was about getting it true, not getting it right. Because back through my experience of even doing the workshop and production at Mixed Blood, I knew that people could misinterpret Uncle Clifford, even in the design and construction. I wanted it to be clear that Uncle Clifford was not a drag queen. I wanted it to be clear that Uncle Clifford’s apparel is about an expression of how she feels that day. It’s not about trying to be anything. It literally is about just leaving yourself alone and accessing all parts of yourself — all of the masculinity, all of the femininity, and when you gain power through your femininity or through your masculinity and male privilege, it just was. So I knew that people could get that construed, and I just really wanted to stand in honor of her, of my community, and be able to show another side of that character. I think oftentimes we see the snap, we see the sharp tongue, but we often don’t get to see the heart and what happens when a character in the LGBT spectrum goes home. I was just enraptured by the fact that the character wasn’t in service of someone.
One of the things I picked up right away is that Uncle Clifford cares so much about the club and the people who work for her. The Pynk is in her blood. Will we get more backstory on her as the season continues?
Nicco Annan: The duty of P-Valley to me is that you get to embrace the full body and all of its melanin, and I mean that literally and figuratively. You will be able to see Uncle Clifford in all aspects of life, from work to many things outside of the club. You get to go home with her. You maybe even get to see a little more of an intimate experience with her as well. It’s a full journey with Uncle Clifford.
There was that interesting scene with Lil Murda in the premiere. Will we see him cross paths with Uncle Clifford again?
Nicco Annan: You may see him or you may see someone else. What I know is that it was important I think to Katori and myself to show another side of life and how we love. How is it and what is that journey for a non-binary person? What does that look like in 2020? As a gay man myself, I know what it can be like dating on the LGBT spectrum. Whether I’m dating a man that’s gay, whether I’m dating a trans man, a pansexual man, I know that there’s a whole range of things. But one of the things that I find so interesting in this story is that people tend to be attracted to Uncle Clifford, despite whatever parameters they have put on themselves. I think that may transfer to the audience as well, but I think that comes from the fact that she’s walking in her truth. And when a person is walking in their truth, that’s what’s attractive. You’re seeing their light. Oftentimes, we know homophobia and that misogyny can come out of ignorance and fear, but I also think that sometimes people are just enthralled because they want to know the secret to how you became that free. How are you that brave? So that conversation and journey are very interesting, but I’m here for all of the full circle journey.
From the moment that Uncle Clifford stepped onto the screen, I was entranced with her and what she was bringing to the scene. You mentioned Uncle Clifford’s apparel before, and I wanted to point something out that I noticed. When she was going to the bank, she was dressed in a suit. She had certain business to do, and that was reflected in her wardrobe. What’s it like just being in character as Uncle Clifford?
Nicco Annan: It is freedom. It is literally flight. I would tell my cast members that when I’m in character I might be little too much in terms of giving you orders or bossing you around like Uncle Clifford would. But if we’re in between takes or whatever, just let me know. I’m good but sometimes her spirit is very strong, so there would be times where you could get caught up in that. You mentioned apparel and asked how does it feel… If you pay close attention, there is always a feather. For me, that feather signifies the flight and freedom and also resilience. The literal imagery that was laced into the story came from the script. It came from literally the words on the page. So if on the page it says the dancers are flying high around the pole, legs swinging like cricket, singing in the night, that might be what a stage direction is in the script. To me, in every scene when I’m literally looking at my girls going ham on the pole, there’s a whole other emotional scenario that’s going on with Clifford. For me, even though the club is going, tons of people are there, the music is bumping, I am completely still. I was thinking about nighttime when you’re in a field. I’m in the South. Cricket. The sound of moisture and the humidity in it. Maybe a frog, you know what I’m saying? Those kinds of sounds. I’m seeing this picture. And there’s just a feather, whether it’s on my earring, whether it’s on my pin, whether it’s on the girls’ costumes, whether it’s on mine, it’s a sign. In character and wardrobe, it was like putting on the skin. It was just freedom. That’s why I use that word.
There is such a huge prevalence of homophobia in the South — still. Will the show explore a lot of what it means to be queer, non-binary, and Black in the South today?
Nicco Annan: Absolutely. I think that the show is very bold and brave in that it attacks stereotypes and shatters them. I think that the homophobia that exists in the South and the misogyny that exists in hip hop culture is changing. People are truly being enlightened. They are being informed. I think that visibility is helping that. I think that having conversations around language is helping that because I think oftentimes Black people in general, but especially in the South, they may not be speaking about homophobia and misogyny from an academic standpoint and using that academic vernacular. Oftentimes, they are more concerned with primarily making sure that you stay alive. How do you navigate systemic racism, and how do you deal with this? And they’re teaching you about God because God is going to save you from everything. One of the beautiful things with this show is that I feel that it showcases positive relationships between the queer Black community and the heterosexual community. I think that when the moment of homophobia or misogyny does come up or certain things may be spoken, there is directly after that some corrective language that happens. I think that you are able to see male bodies on the LGBTQ spectrum and female bodies represented as well. There are lots of stories that are laced over and laced throughout the show that explore that thing. It doesn’t hit you over the head, and I was happy about that because it’s real life. It’s not sensationalized. It’s actually something that’s embraced for its normalcy. I think through showcasing the normalcy of it, I think that is how the change can happen because people at home, people that may not have a relationship with anyone that may be non-binary or a relationship with someone that may be on LGBTQ spectrum greater than three degrees of separation. I think that it’s an opportunity for them to have an intimate experience with people that are unlike them and see just how human they can be.
For me at least, I’m not familiar with the strip club culture. I feel like a lot of people think they know what it means after watching a movie like Hustlers, but that’s just not the full story. Even just the first episode was extremely enlightening for me. The athleticism is incredible. I don’t know if it was Brandee [Evans] or a stunt double doing those moves on the pole in the premiere, but that was amazing.
Nicco Annan: We do have doubles just because of the amount of times you have to do it, so that the body didn’t get tired out and things like that. But we all went to a dance camp/ pole camp. We were all in it, including myself, and you do get to see some glimpses of Uncle Clifford on the pole. For me, even in the training and boot camp, we were all so serious about it because that level of authenticity was necessary. Even when my girls were in rehearsal with our choreographer, I would be there just as Uncle Clifford would, when I would be in my office going over some paperwork or trying to run some numbers and coming in to see what the combination was going to be for tonight’s performance or for Freaky Fridays, which happens on a Friday once a month. It was just a natural journey.
I think one of the biggest mysteries of P-Valley right now is Autumn. The show starts with her, and she is very much a mystery. What can you say about Uncle Clifford and Autumn’s dynamic? Because he really takes a chance with her.
Nicco Annan: I think she takes her in given the circumstances of knowing that Mercedes is leaving. There are a couple of things that are in play here. One of them is colorism. Colorism down in the South is definitely prevalent, and in strip club culture it’s prevalent and a main topic. Katori definitely wanted to attack that head-on. Because oftentimes, the lighter-skinned dancers get better shifts where there are more customers than maybe the darker-skinned or the girls with natural hair versus straight hair. All of those dynamics are discussed, even when Uncle Clifford is talking to Lil Murda and says the whole list like a menu — we got White girls, Black girls, brown-skinned girls. We have it all. My club has everything that a man needs. Autumn falls into that because she’s coming in at a time where Uncle Clifford is just finding out that Mercedes is leaving, so there’s a spot that’s opening up. No, she won’t be in the top spot, but she’s light-skinned, she’s pretty, and it seems like she can dance. I think that when Uncle Clifford sees her dance during the booty battle, and even though she’s only winning $50 and a hot plate, I think seeing how free she was able to allow herself to be out there… because what happens is when women are on the pole, you are not doing that for the audience. You are doing that for yourself. You are finding some kind of liberation. For me, as Uncle Clifford, what she did when she won the battle was I saw that she was dancing for a reason. So I was there for that. Even when you extend it further, I think you will see that Uncle Clifford is not a stranger to hard times and to a troubled past herself, whether that is in romantic life or just how she’s navigated through the world. In the same way she was able to identify with Miss Mississippi’s past abusive relationship and sharing her experience there, I think that there may be some experiences that Uncle Clifford and Autumn share, and Uncle Clifford can see that in her.