Nicco Annan is here to make a difference.
As the proprietor of The Pynk on the hit new Starz series P-Valley, Annan is changing the landscape of television by playing Uncle Clifford, a non-binary character with she/her pronouns. With new lace-fronts every time you see her, coupled with what the stage direction calls her “talons,” Uncle Clifford is hell on heels.
Originally involved in the stage play of the name Pussy Valley, Annan expertly melds the comedy and drama in the character while becoming a forerunner of positive representation for the non-binary community. I sat down to speak to Annan about the love for Uncle Clifford, the success of the show, and his hopes for where Uncle Clifford will go next.
Tyler Doster: Hi! How are you?
Nicco Annan: I’m good, how are you?
I’m good! I’m Tyler with AwardsWatch. How are you keeping sane during the pandemic?
Um. Other than the donuts? And the pizza? (laughs) I am keeping sane through lots of meditation and quiet times for self and music. All the regular things. What about yourself?
I’ve been watching a lot of tv. I binge watched P-Valley during my quarantine! I use most of my time watching tv to be honest with you.
Okay, alright. That sounds like work and pleasure all in one. Hopefully! Hopefully it was pleasurable for you.
It was! So, every time Uncle Clifford walks on screen my eyes are glued to her. So I guess my very first question for you is how does it feel to be such a scene stealer?
I don’t think about it like that. I really just think about the truth of the moment. It’s interesting when I watch the show, I laugh, you know, and I have moments of chuckle which is reflective of life because sometimes the only way to deal with trauma, tragedy or oppression, adversity, whatever is to laugh at it. But you’re not laughing in the moment. So inside of it, it doesn’t feel like a scene stealer situation. I think it’s people not being able to have a fully fleshed out experience with a person of gender fluidity or non-binary experience and expression of identity so I think that’s the difference for me as I play it.
Are you surprised around the hype surrounding Uncle Clifford? On Halloween, I saw so many people dressed as Uncle Clifford, including Lizzo! How does that feel?
Halloween took me out. Halloween really took me out. I was truly overwhelmed during the Halloween experience and that was the time, aside from the show actually airing and any reviews, that I was like, “Ohhh. The culture gets it! Yes, the culture gets it!” Lizzo and her whole crew doing everybody in the whole club, I just thought that that was beautiful because I don’t feel like it’s something that’s centered only around Uncle Clifford. If you love Uncle Clifford, you love all of her girls and the men that are in the club. All of the nuanced relationships inside The Pynk.
Definitely! So how did you get involved with the show? What got you brought onto the show?
Back in 2009, Tyler, I was introduced to Katori Hall, who is the showrunner and creator for P-Valley, back when she was finishing up some of her research for the play version and the play was called Pussy Valley. Through her writer friends, she was hosting a series where she and other writers were getting together to hear their work aloud and I came, I participated in that, that was our first time meeting one another and it kind of snowballed. I read the first four pages of the script and it repeated through iteration and iteration of readings and workshops with actors doing the show, readings and workshops with actual pole dancers and strippers coming into the world because the producers had questions, they had a “limited sight” I’d like to say, on being able to see the story in P-Valley and seeing that it’s beyond the sensationalism of the dancing, but the story is centered around these women’s lives and other marginalized communities. It was all about telling truth, telling stories and being in the moment.
When you read this and you found out about Uncle Clifford, what made you want to play her?
Okay, so, I am gay. I’ve been gay all my life and I’ve been acting and performing all of my life. This was a role that doesn’t come along often. I knew that when I read this, I was like “this is big, in a very unique kind of way.” The thing that gave it away to me literally was in those first four pages and it was the stage description when you first see Uncle Clifford. It said something to the effect of, “Uncle Clifford emerges from the shadows, eyelashes dancing like butterfly wings and nails like evil talons. She is equal in measure, masculine and feminine. Uncle Clifford.” And I was just like “Wow. Who’s that?” You know? The imagery of the butterflies, the metamorphosis that lies within there, the strength of eagles. I thought about height, I thought about flight. So always even in some of my costumes and wardrobes, I worked very intricately with our designers Rita [McGhee] and Alita Bailey. I always wanted a little feather, a little sense of that flight because that’s what you’re doing on that pole.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a character as equal parts masculine and feminine as Uncle Clifford and you embody both so well. How does that feel to be such a positive force for the non-binary community?
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you so much. It feels amazing. I have non-binary people in my life but to be honest, on an artistic platform, I hadn’t realized the impact of not seeing and not having the representation. Sometimes I feel like you can get caught in the, “This is the way it is, this is how it is, this is what it’s gonna be. We are gonna seek our own liberation and our own silos in our own communities.” And it kinda becomes that kind of, “this is for us” type of thing. To be able to play a character that’s not peripheral; Uncle Clifford is truly at the center of this story and a main character and you’re getting to see beyond the pole, beyond the wig, beyond the hair, the glam of it all – you get to see her humanity. That is what was absolutely intriguing, attractive and so gratifying to be able to live in those experiences. When I was preparing for the role, I would think about “What do non-binary people go through?” What are some of the experiences throughout the day? So I would take myself shopping as I was preparing for the role to be ready for the audition. I would go into Marshall’s, I would go into Ross [laughs] and I would really clock the stares. I would clock the adorations, just all of the small intricacies. Even when we were doing the play, the full version play was done in 2015 at Mixed Blood Theatre, and when I got that there was a moment when the director, Nataki Garrett, she was like “Oh, we’re gonna send you to the nail salon, it’s time for you to get your nails done.” And I was like, “What are we doing?” And she said I was getting nails for the show and I said “Are they gonna come off?” because they were talking like they’d be a true full set of acrylic nails, which I was down for but the issue that I had was that I was not a native of St. Paul or Minneapolis, so I didn’t know the area. I was literally plucked from California. All of the actors, we’d be on public transportation. It was downtown. There were so many public dangers that I, Nicco, was unaware of and so it really affected what I thought was my safety. That was a huge lightbulb. It spoke to and fed Uncle Clifford’s subtext and the reality of me understanding what it’s really like to walk the walk of a non-binary person and the strength it takes to do so. I was blessed to have all these nuggets along the way to illuminate the depth that I thought were often overlooked whether in a script or a portrayal of anyone of non-binary or genderfluid experience. So nuggets along the way make a burger. [laughs]
Speaking of groundbreaking, I find that Uncle Clifford and Lil Murda’s relationship is groundbreaking, especially to be on a big television network, having a cisgender man be with a non-binary person that identifies with she/her pronouns. Can you tell me about those scenes and was there any extra pressure to get those scenes right?
You said a word: to get it right. Literally in my trailer there’s a post-it that I had that I always looked at and spoke out loud as an affirmation every day and that was: don’t get it right, get it true. So, because people haven’t seen that experience, I’m aware that that experience exists that people are like “Oh my god, what is this?” It was something that is very real. I thought to be able to give credence to it was an honor and I thought was very liberating for both the non-binary community as well as the cisgender community. Depending on how Lil Murda identifies, people will experience more of that as the show continues; we’ve only got the first eight hours. Those scenes were so – I felt privileged. So often you don’t get to see it. You don’t get to see strong physical framed bodies and be able to show a certain level of intimacy. I thought that it was really great to be in a space to – for the men that identified with Lil Murda’s character – I thought that it was very real to be able to express that freedom to know that they were okay and that it didn’t lessen any of their masculinity. The truthful nature of their relationship, of Uncle Clifford and Lil Murda, my hope for it is that it erodes the hypermasculinity that exists in our culture. In America, in southern culture, and especially in Black southern culture. Overall, for real, the fact that we are all worthy of love and that love is possible; that message right there transfixed me. There are so many stories about trauma. You need to be able to see that: love. This is a space where there is a crossover of the heterosexual community and the lgbtq+ community. There are so many layers that overlaps and they’re people. I feel like when people see the positive reflection onscreen, it helps in real life to be able to say, “Oh, now I have more context for when I’m engaging with a person. Oh, I don’t know your pronouns, let me just ask you.” As opposed to being derogatory and saying other things.
Right! I would say as a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, those were some of my favorite scenes. The intimacy in them was so amazing to get to watch because it’s not something we get to see all the time so I really appreciate how you handled them.
Thank you! Me and my brother! Me and my brother, J. Alphonse Nicholson. We were all in that together. He is an ally to the community, I like to say an advocate as a straight man. We had a conversation about it. What Katori writes, she writes with such love and such vision. And I also think she writes with responsibility.
So another thing about Uncle Clifford is she has a beautiful variety of wigs, every time we see her in a different outfit, every time we see her she has a fresh set of nails. Did that help you? When you got in wardrobe, were you ready to become her?
Oh, yeah. Knowing her skin was everything. I’ll say this: this was an experience where you don’t have them all the time, but you realize how it’s never just a one person show. I worked very closely with my makeup artist, I worked very closely with Arlene Martin who did my hair and all the wig looks, and the designers Rita and Alita. And Katori is so specific in it. I was really blessed, the designers were all Black women so they had a hand on the culture and what it was like. So whether I would say “I want some baby hairs” or “It needs to be jazzy enough, but at the same time, ‘did you get that done in the kitchen?’” so those intricate levels of specificity are part of what helped me feel unstoppable. I was like, “Yep, this is it, I have seen people just like Uncle Clifford in this moment.” All of those things definitely helped.
So Uncle Clifford is given some of the most amazing dialogue in this show, everything that comes out of her mouth is wonderful. Do you have a favorite line or one of the rules of the Pynk that are your favorite that you’ve gotten to say?
First of all, thank you. Everyone always says, “Rule 24.5: No crying at the Pynk.” That rule. My favorite rule is “Let the stage be your steppingstone, not your tombstone.” So that’s one of my favorite rules because that concept is about having vision for your life, you can use this moment to step up and not be buried by it.
I had to ask because my favorite is “Contrary to Chucalissa belief, ain’t no hoes in this house.”
Ay! When you first asked that I started to laugh a little because – the one about Wesley Snipes – I’m trying to remember the full line. It’s where Autumn Night is avoiding giving her ID to Uncle Clifford. This is my worst nightmare, I just want you to know: having an interview and forgetting one of my rules. It’s the one about tax evasion: “we don’t do tax evasion.” That one is good because being dark-skinned and Wesley Snipes and Wesley Snipes was actually a keynote speaker at my graduation for undergrad. It was just a whole moment.
So, for my last question, I just want to know: what are you looking forward to in season 2 and do you have any personal hopes for where Uncle Clifford will go?
Hm. Personal hopes, I would say, I want her to be able to find a healthy relationship. That would be really really great and wonderful to see. I think that what was starting was really great but I also thought it as really tragic. I’m also interested in being able to dive into some of Uncle Clifford’s past because there are reasons for everything. So if you guys get to see even more of her past and the situations that carved and shaped who she is. I think that’s really cool because I love the relationship with Loretta Devine playing grandmother Ernestine and just seeing that history and I think it’ll be great to go deeper. That’s a little something something. The rumors are starting now and we’re ready to go back for season 2 but I haven’t read all the scripts and all the things. I do know the story so hopefully you’ll get to see why Uncle Clifford’s beard is the way it is, you’ll see how did Uncle Clifford get with grandmother. There’s true backstory too.
Okay, now I’m hoping for that too. I’ll be thinking about that until I see season 2.
Bet! Well what was yours? What you wanna see?
I just want to see Uncle Clifford happy. I just want her to be happy in a relationship where she can feel seen, they can be out and about together and where she’s actually genuinely happy with herself and with someone that’s happy with her, too.
I feel you on that. I think it’s so great thought that how I’m experiencing it. I experience cisgender women saying “I identify with Uncle Clifford. You make me feel comfortable with my body. I’m a full-figured woman” or “I’m a dark complected woman” as well as males that are sayiing the same thing so it’s awesome to be in this space where you’re playing a character that’s affecting so many different people. I love the fact that even though the relationship had its bumps and pitfalls, I love that it was real. That it wasn’t a fairy tale. I never want it to be a fairy tale, I like that it’s real cause we’re complex! And lord knows when you add in, “Are you on the low? What kind of expression do you have? I’m bisexual, I’m polysexual, I’m this,” there’s so many options. At the end of the day, it’s all about communication, right?
Right! I can agree with that. Thank you so, so much for your time today. I have more than enjoyed talking to you. I have been obsessed with this show since I watched it so congratulations on the show’s success! Congrats on Uncle Clifford’s success! I totally cannot wait for season 2. I hope you stay safe and sane during the pandemic.
I will. Have you been twerking?
I do it sometimes if I need to.
In between, on commercial breaks, I need you to practice and get your twerk on.
Okay, I can do that!
Okay, cause when we speak in 2021, I wanna see it clap! [claps]
Okay, next time we speak I can definitely make it clap for you. [both laugh]
You have a great day!
P-Valley is currently available to stream on Starz and On Demand.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Image courtesy of Starz