Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to actor Nicco Annan about bringing the role of Uncle Clifford from the stage to the small screen and the importance of non-binary representation.
If you haven’t watched STARZ’s P Valley, you are truly missing out on one of the most original series of last year. Taking place in the fictional Mississippi town of Chucalissa, the series follows the dancers working in a strip club called The Pynk, owned by the dynamic and vibrant Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan).
Clifford is notably genderfluid, using she/her pronouns, but that’s just one aspect of this character. As she struggles to keep the club open amidst the chaos of a pending casino takeover, she keeps her cool with a sharp tongue and sharper love for her beloved “heffers.” Plus, Clifford develops a relationship with a budding rapper named Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), which brings about one of the most emotional moments of the show (and this series includes a beatdown between a mother and daughter!).
Uncle Clifford actually started as a character in series creator Katori Hall’s play Pussy Valley, a role that Annan originated more than 10 years ago. I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with the actor about bringing Clifford to television, how representation has changed in 10 years, and what it’s like seeing such positive reception for the show and this groundbreaking character.
AD: I binged P Valley in two days. It was so good. You’re amazing on it. And in my research, I learned that you’ve been playing Clifford for a while. What’s it like bringing her to the small screen and has playing her changed through the years?
Nicco Annan: First of all, what a wild ride you must have had over the weekend. (Laughs) That’s a lot!
NA: It’s a pleasure to live in Clifford’s skin on the small screen. It’s like you’re going to a family reunion in a lot of ways, because the reach that the piece has, it’s so expansive and much more than it could ever be in theater. Having a voice to be a part of the lexicon of LGBTQ+ characters, it’s an honor. I feel like so many people are coming to the family reunion, people who didn’t even know they were cousins. So it’s a lot of people who are getting an inside view of a culture that is living unapologetically, yet has room for others.
AD: That’s great. So you’ve been playing this character for 10 years.
NA: Yeah, the first time I read any of the pages was back in 2009.
AD: The world has changed so much since then. Has that affected your approach to this character in the years you’ve been playing her?
NA: Oh, yeah. Back in 2009, non-binary and genderfluid people weren’t—and they still aren’t to this day—seen with a complete humanity all the time when it comes to scripts and stories that are being told. But I think the advancement of having artists behind the screens and in the writers’ room, having women of color, the directors, just people putting together the story outside of the actors—I think that that makes a huge difference.
I think I was able to do the research before this role, in a very nontraditional way, and feel the things that non-binary people feel. And by that, I mean there are things taken from the script, but in creating Uncle Clifford, I really delved into regular day-to-day activities. So I consulted several non-binary and genderfluid friends, people in the spectrum. I did a stealth deep dive on social media. I looked into the lives and behind the screens, I will say, of what people show you. I wanted to know what isn’t shown, and some of the things that aren’t shown are the violence and the barriers that non-binary people and genderfluid people go through, but also what I saw was the strength, resilience, and tenacity, and I wanted to make sure that I brought pieces of all sides of the puzzle to the table and the character, because there is a strength and a power that comes with the cost of walking in this world and knowing who you are. I feel like the community knows that cost best.
AD: That’s beautiful.
NA: It was a lot of research in department stores. I would go to TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Ross. And I would shop for the character and just catching the looks of people, when they see you standing 6’2″ and having dark skin and a strong stature. You had a range in the spectrum of responses, whether they were affirmations as well as stares or “We don’t have that in your size”—a quick cutdown. It was different. I remember what it was like shopping in Harlem in 2009 for Uncle Clifford versus shopping in 2019 at Marshalls for Uncle Clifford. That was a totally different experience. I can feel the change for sure.
AD: There’s so many things I could ask you about, but I’m just gonna start right at the end of Season 1. That moment where she put her hand on Lil Murda’s shoulder and he ignores her. Can Clifford ever forgive him?
NA: I think she’ll be able to forgive him and even take him back, when it comes to accountability. The last thing that LaMarques said to Uncle Clifford was, “I want to be ready.” And she said, “Well, let me know when you are.” She’s basically saying, you are not ready right now. I’m hopeful for them, but I think it’s gonna be a ways. To be very honest, there’s something about being in the black male body specifically and seeing the hyper masculinity that exists within Lil Murda, and however he identifies, I think the audience will gain a deeper understanding in Season 2.
And Clifford’s body, some people have questions: Who are you? Are you in the midst of a transition? The thing is is that Clifford identifies in that non-binary space, and there’s something more inside of her that’s more than male, more than female; it’s all things, and the way she expresses herself may be more toward a feminine expression in terms of identify with the nails, hair, and clothes, but her identity exists in a space that’s beyond gender. It can’t be contained. If we all can do that in any shape, form, or fashion—be who we are without apology—I think that’s one of the missions of the piece that Katori [Hall] was very successful with. I asked her in the beginning, “Where did the concept of this person come from?” Uncle Clifford was based off of three people, and the combination of those three and the notion of what she initially told me was: “What could a person be if they accepted their full femininity and full masculinity?” And that in and of itself was freedom and license to just go and create a human being. So that’s what I did. That’s what we did. (Laughs)
AD: Everything you’re saying is this character.
NA: I love that.
AD: Clifford seems so up on everything that goes on, but she didn’t know about the casino coming in. Why didn’t she know? How was that a blind spot?
NA: If you follow the crumbs, there’s a lot in the show about gentrification, and when Uncle Clifford is constantly noticing that there are more Mexican day laborers that are working and they are coming in—and the whole thing with the check cashing—when she starts talking for all of the people in the line, that’s a thread for you guys, because a lot of times the gentrification that happens in communities is done by other minorities. It may be a big wig company that comes in and buys everything, but who does the work? That’s where that thread comes from, and I think you’ll see more of that in Season 2.
AD: That’s so interesting. This is such a physical role for you, in terms of so much of Clifford’s personality comes out in her gestures. How do you find that or come up with that? Like her clicking her heels or nails.
NA: Megan, it all starts with that twerk, baby. (Laughs)
NA: A lot of that comes from the background of the character. Clifford was a dancer, and that was one of the ideas of turning the juke joint [into a strip club], when it was grandmother Ernestine’s (Loretta Devine). Before Ernestine owned it, it was her grandfather’s and it was a cotton mill. This building, this land that is in this family, has been passed down over generations, so there was no way that we could just let it go for it to be lost under Clifford’s watch.
I think the physicality of the character comes out of that space of being a dancer. The way that you see things as a dancer sometimes is beyond a physical form; it is an energy, and you’re communicating pictures with your body, whether that’s turning up or a praise of worship, it’s a means of communication. It was only appropriate that Clifford would be able to use the body in a way as a weapon, use the body as a place of a temple. All of that can happen, and it happens within different genders and identities. There are lots of times where women use sexuality or submission—it can be a weapon to get what they want, a weapon to defend yourself against other advances. You use that combined with your brain; you got some real things going on. The combination of all those different rules Clifford has, combined with how she sees the world, is a part of how you gain shape. And that’s how she did it.
AD: So much of this show is about motherhood. Do you think Clifford’s relationship with her grandmother influenced her way of supporting the girls at The Pynk? At one point, Mercedes even says that Clifford is the best mother she’s ever had. Where does the maternal instinct come from?
NA: I think that the maternal instinct comes from Clifford’s mother, whom you haven’t seen.
AD: Yes! I wondered about that.
NA: Yes, Megan, you digested a lot in two days. I love it. This is one of the first interviews in a long time, where I’m like, oh, she got all of it! (Laughs) It really comes from the relationship with Clifford’s mother, but also definitely grandmother Ernestine, the way that she loves Clifford. People of different generations approach the topic of LGBTQ+ identity in archaic ways. A lot of things they may not understand because it’s different for them, but the one thing I know that they do understand, our elders, is love. When you get to a certain point in love, only certain things truly matter. So that scene in Episode 6, when Lil Murda comes over to the house for date night, grandmother says, “Clifford came out the coochie swishing.” There was no apology. She knew who I was from the very beginning. For Lil Murda to hear that coming from a family member and an elder in the family, I think that says a lot and gave credence to the person Clifford is. We don’t see enough stories with characters that are handled with love that are not told from the perspective of trauma. The story may include or have parts of contingency and traumatic events, those types of things, but it was also important to be able to show how can love heal?
AD: What’s it been like seeing such positive reception for this character, bringing her out to a bigger world?
NA: It feels like God’s confirmation. I have lived and had a career where I have been going at it for a very long time. Colorism is a very real thing in this country. I remember when I took my first professional head shots, I had facial hair, because I wanted to have a shot for casting directors to see what I looked like with facial hair. Every single photographer that I interviewed with said they would not take pictures of me with facial hair because I would not get work, and I just think it’s hilarious that I’m in a series regular role that is getting all of this attention with all of this facial hair. Facial hair, nails, and wigs. (Laughs) And that was just back in ’99. And then things progressed.
I also knew that because of my size and stature, people tended to think that I could only be the reverend or the more conservative characters. People were not looking at me for leading a shot, and to be honest, there are certain characters that were not even being written for the stage at the time. People were looking for a certain thing, whatever that was. I am happy, happy, happy, happy to say the time has changed, and I think I am reaping the benefits of representation. I am not the first gay black man. I am not the first person to portray of a non-binary or genderfluid experience, and I will not be the last as long as I continue to do my job right.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.