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Interview: Nicco Annan on Becoming Uncle Clifford in ‘P-Valley’

With its gritty depiction of the community surrounding a strip club in Mississippi, P-Valley was one of most compelling new shows of this past TV season. Central to its allure is Nicco Annan as the strip club’s fearless owner Uncle Clifford, in a glamorous and gutsy non-binary role that defies expectations. In our recent Awards Radar interview with the Spirit Award-nominated actor, Annan discussed his process in finding the truth in this memorable character. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

Shane Slater: You’ve been playing this character since it was on the stage. How did you get involved?

Nicco Annan: I like to give the real answer to that kind of a question. Issa Rae talks about networking “across” as opposed to always thinking you have to network up. And I bring that point up because Katori Hall – the creator and the showrunner for P-Valley – was writing the play Pussy Valley. And she was amongst her writer colleagues and friends. She asked them, “I’m looking for an artist or actor that can house this kind of energy. That can house a masculine and a feminine energy. I have this character that’s in my mind that I want to bring to life.”

She spoke that word to a fellow writer named Dominique Morisseau and we went to high school together. And she was like, “I have a friend, you know. He’s on Broadway right now. You might want to think about seeing if he works.” And so literally, I was invited over to the house on a Monday night where all the different artists were sitting around, kind of like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. It was a modern day version of that. And that’s where I read the first four pages and it was like, boom! I was like yo, this is fire. What is this? You got to get to work.

SS: You’ve really made this character your own. How did you approach the crafting of Uncle Clifford’s persona and understanding the specifics of this setting and culture?

NA: One of the things that makes playing Uncle Clifford extremely easy, is the specificity of the world and the words that are used. Katori’s writing style is very much like a Zora Neale Hurston, in that she writes unapologetically. How these people speak the language, the idiolect of the language.

So just those kinds of specifics really lean into the fact that we are not a monolith. We are not just all one thing, you know. So when I think about playing her, I think about just doing what is on the page. And then as the actor, in terms of the craftsmanship, I wanted to go with what we have not seen before. I see people that have put on a wig for a joke. I see people that have tried to play either drag or trans characters or non-binary characters for laughs. Right now, we all know behind the clown there’s always tears. I just wanted to see what was the human experience. So I kind of looked at things that I saw in movies and TV and I said, okay, let’s do the opposite of that.

SS: One of my favorite things is seeing the relationship between Lil Murda and Uncle Clifford unfold. We don’t usually see men in that hyper-masculine, black hip hop world be so queer and vulnerable. What were some of the conversations you had in terms of the representation and portrayal of this unique relationship on TV?

NA: Well, it may be unique for TV, but in the world, we know that it’s not too unique. You know, I think that bringing that level of truth to light is what it’s really all about. And that’s in all aspects. I have a cousin that worked in a strip club before. I have a cousin that had gone off to war and then came back. And we know people that have suffered PTSD, kind of like Diamond. We know people that have been through the pipeline of the prison system like Big L.

So the conversations that J. Alphonse Nicholson (who plays Lil Murda) and myself had were really about how can we bring this stuff to light. And then when the three of us added Katori Hall into the mix, we talked about how can we illuminate the fact that black people can love. That there is hope.

One of the beautiful and most transformative things I think of is that people who may have shunned other non-binary people in real life, or had such polarizing opinions on queer life, are seeing a way in. They’re having a different kind of a connection. And I think that’s because you get to see Uncle Clifford and her full life. You get to see Clifford literally running the club. But you also get to see when Uncle Clifford is home and being a caretaker with her grandmother. And that relationship I think, also really humanized this person that could be larger than life. And it’s a blessing because it’s the truth.

J. Alphonse Nicholson as Lil Murda.

SS: One of the standout things on P-Valley is the costumes that you get to wear. They really stand out in this otherwise humble working class setting in the South. What were some of the references you and the costume designer used to create these looks?

NA: One of the things I love is Katori’s world. It’s truly like a graphic novel, as opposed to a “reality” show. If you take some one of the scenes in season one, people always talk about the parasol from Episode Three. That episode is called Higher Ground. Because they were talking about the mounds, talking about the plantations, and things like that. Also thinking about the aspiration. So when you think about just the names of the episodes, they really speak to something deeper and more rooted than just “real TV” or whatever that means, right? That look was based off of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. But we call it “The Wind Done Gone.”

So it’s always a remix that’s done on a look, or an inspiration for something that we do have. Clifford’s purse, all the little balls was like, Oh my gosh, where’d you get that from? And we got them from the beauty supply. You know what I’m saying? I have aunts and my mom, that would get things in different places. You don’t always have to go to the most high end store to find things.

When I was doing the play Pussy Valley, I was in the salon chair getting the wig done for the show. And literally somebody came in selling CDs and left and did their thing. Then a sister came in with two suitcases and was like, “Y’all, I got these tops.” And she was selling different blouses and things. And I was like, What else you got in there? And from that moment, I literally got three outfits that we used in the play, from the salon.

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, which I say is “up South.” Because you know, from The Great Migration, a lot of people have come this way. My father is from West Africa, from Ghana. And there, it’s all about the market place. I don’t care if you’re in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria. Everybody’s got a marketplace. So there was a communal aspect to the way that we created the looks on P-Valley. And I feel like just heritage-wise, that translated. That’s where the looks come from, in short.

SS: I feel like this has become a signature role for you. Has it significantly affected how you see yourself in this industry, or how others see you?

NA: One of the beautiful things about Uncle Clifford and playing her is that it’s limitless. And I think people are seeing that. I think people are seeing the masculinity as well as they are seeing the femininity. They are seeing the tenderness, as well as they are seeing the strength. I think that the notion or the idea that this role could “pigeonhole” or “typecast” me, I think the role itself shatters that. That’s my thought and that’s my prayer. Because I think that too, is the truth.

But when you say, how has it affected how people see me? I think it allows people to see me. Nothing in my life has changed, except for the fact more people know me. That’s it. People talk about paying dues and things like that. I think that paying the dues in this industry, for the main part, is putting yourself in situations where you get to know who you are, and how you respond in those situations, as an actor, as an artist, as a person.

The blessing is that this came into my life when I was of a certain age and a level of maturity that I didn’t have any kind of questions of who I am, what I believe, what will I do. I was very rooted in all of that. So I think that just translates. So we’re just able to have fun and do the work and keep it moving.

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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