'P-Valley's' Nicco Annan On Bringing Uncle Clifford To Life

"The show, to me, creates a level of empathy that we can have in our society, in real life."

Down deep in the Mississippi Delta, the fictional world of The Pynk, a sometimes up, sometimes down-on-its-luck strip club filled with a colorful cast of characters and home to its fair share of scandal, drama and redemption has captivated viewers every Sunday this summer. The Pynk Posse, as they've come to call themselves, tuned each episode of STARZ's P-Valley into a full blown event, even in the midst of quarantine and pandemic. P-Valley's show's main strength — of which it has many, including its stylized, moody atmosphere and relatable yet rollercoaster of a plot — is in the vulnerability and humanity of its characters. At once both fabulous and deeply flawed, the staff at The Pynk is led by Uncle Clifford, the club's nonbinary owner, who inherited the club from her grandmother.

Played by Nicco Annan, Uncle Clifford is the rare on-screen LGBTQ character given the full spectrum of humanity they deserve. As Annan puts it, "Uncle Clifford is a lot of things to a lot of people. Mother, father, counselor, champion, cheerleader, lover, all of those things. And I don't think that people are always as accustomed to seeing queer people in that space." Annan worked with the show's creator, the playwright Katori Hall, to bring Clifford to life, back when the series was still in its initial stages.

"Historically, Black queer characters have been presented as the sassy best friend that's quick with a quip or a clap-back, and often peripheral and never the center of the narrative," Hall tells NYLON. "But, hunty, with Uncle Clifford, she is the show. We go beyond that funny face to tap into this complicated human being that is auntie, therapist, enforcer, and pimp wrapped all into one. We put on different faces to different people, and the fact that we get to see Uncle Clifford interact with the mayor, her dancers, their customers, her grandmother, the sheriff, her boo-thang and many many more, gives us a kaleidoscopic view into a kaleidoscopic human being. But it is the intimate Uncle Clifford that hits different. To see Uncle Clifford clearly catch feelings for Lil' Murda (and vice versa) allows us to see Uncle Clifford's heart, which ultimately leads to us seeing her soul."

The day after the show's finale, Annan talked to NYLON about Uncle Clifford's spirituality, the beauty of the Pynk Posse and hints at what's in store for season two:

Having been, in a way, with the character then for quite a long time, longer than just filming, has it been a very different experience playing this character than past roles that you've had?

This character definitely feels like a universe of difference from characters that I've played before. One, the industry is actually in a place now where we are able to tell stories in a more authentic way and unapologetically so. Literally, the first half of my career, be it on stage, be it through choreography, there were limited spaces that gave voice to Black characters that were full, that were complex, that were nuanced. And those same things I could say for characters written on the LGBTQ spectrum, specifically for people of color. The first half of my career, I did the thing that they said that you have to do: if you really want to make it, you have to be able to play straight, but honestly, I didn't take that to heart. I just took that as a construct that exists in Hollywood and in the American theater, and I just chose to keep going till I found my way.

My mother and my father definitely always supported me, even in the uncharted areas of not knowing what gay culture could be like, or even as an artist. I was from the inner city of Detroit. I told my mother necessarily, "I want to be on A Different World," the NBC show with Lisa Bonet. And she was like, "Well, I don't know how to get you there, but you can go to the dance class on Six Mile." So it was about just continuing to press forward in that journey. I saw art as my way out and a way to express a lot of the things and the feelings and thoughts that were going on in my mind.


It seems like there's a lot of what you're talking about even in the character of Uncle Cliff, too, of persevering, despite being othered and finding an outlet that is somewhat unchartered.

Yes. Uncle Clifford, she could be an easy pill to swallow, but I think at first sight, because you're seeing such an audacious spirit, you're seeing so much and you're seeing everything. It's literally out in front of you. Sometimes I think you might want to question it. And I think that the questions often come up because of the things that come up in you, in the person.

I think when you see a person walking in their truth, as I'm experiencing as people are witnessing Uncle Clifford, they are being called to action. Their insecurities or their biases are being brought up. Uncle Clifford is a lot of things to a lot of people. Mother, father, counselor, champion, cheerleader, lover, all of those things. And I don't think that people are always as accustomed to seeing queer people in that space. Katori was really brilliant in showing the humanity of all of the characters in this piece.

Uncle Clifford and I, we do share some certain things. Uncle Clifford is a dancer, Nicco is a dancer. That's how the idea of even coming up with a shake joint, as Uncle Clifford's grandmother would say, a shake joint, J-U-N-T. And now we know Loretta Divine, who plays my grandmother, she sings. We both come from the world of musical theater. But no one is saying that, "Oh, she's playing herself."

She's not, and I am not playing myself. So I'm happy that the day has come where art can reflect life and all people from all different backgrounds can literally do what artists do — and that is transform. If people just see sexuality or if they only see identity, I think that they are being shortsighted. But, hey, it's just the first season. People chime in on social media at different stages, because everything can download or binge watch and stuff like that. But I can usually tell from the comments where they are in the season. I'm like, "Oh, you haven't really gone home with Uncle Clifford yet. You're still in the beginning phases." And that is okay, because I think that you have to be patient. You have to be patient with people.


Religion has an influence on The Pynk and the universe it exists in. What do you think Uncle Clifford's spiritual life is like?

That's a great question, because that's often a space that's left out when you're talking about queer life, when you're talking about members of the LGBTQ community. I think that it is no different than anyone else. Specifically when it comes to Uncle Clifford, I think that she goes to church. I think that she has church at the house. I think that her spirituality is the sound of music, her grandmother being in the house always playing music in the house. In my mind it would be a Sunday morning. It would be Grandmama cooking in the kitchen. There's some gospel music playing in the background. We go to the dining room table. We are having our eggs, maybe some bacon, a little biscuit. And we're listening to the word over a radio or through the internet, like how we are all doing now, right? But prior to the pandemic, I think Uncle Clifford and Ernestine would be doing that anyway, because sometimes some things are very sacred and you don't even risk exposing it to people that you know that they won't understand.


I think with spirituality and religion, there is that difference. And I think oftentimes that members of the LGBTQ community, we find connection to spirituality because you're not being demonized. You're not seen as other, you just are.


Another thing that stood out to me, and I think a lot of viewers, was the scene between Uncle Cliff and Lil Murda at the river, and that really tender moment between them. What was it like to shoot that scene?

"The Last Call To Alcohol", that's episode seven. Yeah, that scene, it was quite powerful. It was quite powerful to be in a space where you can just let your wall down and you can feel someone caring for you. I think that Uncle Clifford was going through so much with so much on her shoulders at that time, with literally not only the logistics of, how are these people going to make money, all of the people that depend on her and that club. But also losing a piece of family history, and family is important. And you don't always get to see that part, again, when it comes to LGBTQ characters. Like to see family, to see the religion, to see Spirit, and to see pure love, not an infatuation, not a fetishized love, but a sure love. That is a space that I can identify just as a Black man, as a Black person, as a gay man. And I've definitely identified as Uncle Clifford, in terms like, what is it like to let someone shower you with pure love. That moment was also very sacred. That's the word I will use.

It's very sacred because when someone has done something for you, like I'm going through these comments because this is how I'm experiencing the show and the pandemic. I'm not out in the woods. So I'm not on the go for folks. Social media has been amazing in that regard, whether it's Twitter or Instagram, Facebook, all of those things.

I'm hearing people saying on social media, "Well, oh my gosh. Uncle Clifford is having a man put up Christmas lights for a date, and I can't get somebody to take me to the Sizzler." While that makes me chuckle, it also makes me think about, well, how are we treating one another? And how do we think that, "Oh, it has to be so much more." All that man did was get some Christmas lights from the Dollar General and drove with her to the back parking lot of the club. It's the simple gesture sometimes that means the most.


You mentioned interacting with fans of the show on social media. Even pandemic and people being more engaged right now aside, there was such much talk about and love for this show online. It really resonated with people.

Oh, I love the Pynk Posse. That's what they call themselves. It's so crazy. I think they are responding like this because of the community. And when I say community, I'm not talking about just the sex work industry or just the Black Southern community. I'm talking about international. I'm talking about intergenerational. I think they're resonating with seeing such authentic people. I think people are seeing their cousins. They are seeing themselves. They are seeing their best friends. And in this time where we are literally in our homes, some people are still in shelter in place — I think that them seeing people on the screen literally connect, literally thrive, literally have fun, it gave them that same feeling. I know a lot of people felt like when we're in that club, when the Pynk is in full swing, it's like they are in a club themselves. And I think people started to make an event out of it, just like people used to make an event out of Scandal with their wine and popcorn. They were coming to P-Valley with some hot wings and whatever the favorite beverage is, and they were getting dressed like they were going to the club. It just was something that I don't think we anticipated. But I also think that when it comes to our stories, stories about marginalized communities and Black Southern voices for real, I think that it's a different world where people are like, "We can have fun." There's celebration, even though there is still dilemma. You know?


What are your hopes for Uncle Clifford in season two?

I hope that the wave of people recognizing their own internal homophobia, checking that and releasing that continues. I have heard so many messages, from people who felt like they were being seen, coming from a non-binary space and a queer space and feeling represented, that thought or that statement. I think that it's amazing that art in and of itself can do that. This is the first time in my career that I am feeling the resonating love that's happening from people in that healing — literally hearing from parents, mothers, grandmothers, talking about their grandchildren and children, that they may be estranged from. And the show is making them wanting to reach out and connect again.

There's one that really touches me and makes me emotional. I heard from a guy, he reached out to me and he said, "I'm not going to lie to you. I've seen people like Uncle Clifford before and I've beat up on them, but I didn't know that they were as gangster as you are." And he used the word gangster, he said, "Because you real," he said, "You real, like you remind me of my grandmother." This is a straight guy, and he's finding connective threads in Uncle Clifford's life. And that's what I think it really is, even if it's another woman, who wasn't even talking about anything that's traumatic. She literally said, "How is that you are in full nails and makeup, that you still sag your pants like a dude and you still rocking this beard and this tracksuit? You making me feel a way, and I'm a heterosexual woman." And I said, "That's such a compliment." I said, "Enjoy. Feel turned on, like, keep watching." There's nothing wrong with being turned on. It's our minds that are putting us in these boxes, so if your heart literally just said, "Hey, I'm attracted to that," go for it. So, I really hope that that continues. I hope that that continues for season two.


Any hints for what's to come?

I definitely know that you're going to continue to see the fashions from Uncle Clifford. I think that's a part of who she is, it's part of her heritage. I think you're going to get to see even more of her history. There's a piece that has been on the screen from the day you guys have met Uncle Clifford. There's a ring that most people haven't commented on or paid attention to. But that ring actually, I think that the story of that ring will be a part of season two.

Thank you for that Easter egg!

Yes. You're welcome. That's actually the first time I said that. The looks that Uncle Clifford wears are an homage to women in her life, women that she looks up to. The fashion and the looks, the hair, it's all a part of, as a culture, how we express ourselves. Oftentimes when you are feeling oppressed, you have to find joy in order to survive. And that joy can literally come from your pink hair. When you think about fashion, it takes you somewhere. And you can say, "Hey, even though you say I can't fight, I'm going to find a way. I'm going to find a way, you will not silence me." So, that type of energy, that type of pride without beating people over the head — to me, it was beautiful and it's necessary and I thought it was a different way of going about it. This story is about showing you a way that we can exist.

So, I said to the fans on the STARZ live before they saw the last episode, I thanked them and I thank all of the readers that are going to read this article for following the show. Those that are coming in, welcome. Welcome to The Pynk, baby. And as you fall in love with these characters, all I ask is that you continue to fall in love with the people in the real world that look like these characters, that move like these characters. Don't second guess, don't prejudge that Black girl that may have a little bit of a bite to her, that may be a little bit aggressive, because she could be a Mercedes. The show, to me, creates a level of empathy that we can have in our society, in real life. That's the ultimate goal. There is medicine in the Kool-Aid.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.