The Most Fabulous TV Character Ever? Meet Nicco Annan, P-Valley’s Groundbreaking Uncle Clifford
On Starz’s revolutionary drama “P-Valley,” Nicco Annan plays gender-fluid, fashion-forward, “beat for the gawds” strip-club owner Uncle Clifford. Here’s his—and her—moving story.
It was over 10 years ago that Nathaniel Nicco Annan, who goes by Nicco, first read early pages for the play Pussy Valley by Katori Hall, the 2015 debut of which he would go on to star in at the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis. But it was only two weeks ago that Annan’s character, Uncle Clifford, made her fabulous screen debut in the groundbreaking drama series P-Valley, the adaptation of Hall’s play currently airing on Starz.
She’s throwing a handsy patron out of her Dirty Delta strip club—a “shake junt,” as she calls it. A cop car’s red and blue lights dance uneasily on her red leather jacket and gold lamé pants. Uncle Clifford slaps open a hand fan and starts refreshing herself, the slight breeze jostling her dangle earrings. She shifts in her heels and stares down the cop, taking command of the situation.
As she steps out of the shadows, you see more of her long brown hair, cascading in perfect waves down past her shoulders. Chic layers frame her dark, black beard, sculpted more so than groomed into sharp, elegant angles that climb up her cheekbones. An aggressive amount of highlighter competes there for attention with inches of fake eyelashes, which flutter as punctuation to every side-eye, sass, and bon mot.
Uncle Clifford, who uses she/her pronouns, is the non-binary, gender-fluid owner of the Pynk and the no-nonsense matron to the girls who dance there. She presents both masculine and feminine in equal, unapologetic measure, swanning through her club in luxurious couture and a face “beat for the gawds” while rooting herself with a fearsome, respected presence in the local business community. By last week’s episode two, Uncle Clifford finds herself in the most unexpected of situations: the nascent stages of a romantic relationship with a hypermasculine rapper.
One of the best-reviewed new series of the summer, P-Valley is already remarkable based on the talent involved.
Not only is Hall the rare Black female showrunner of an hour-long drama, but every episode is helmed by a female director, placing an unmistakable and unwavering female gaze on the stories of sex workers. It is a noir melodrama that centers Southern Black women, both their realities and their vernacular, and doesn’t ask for the approval of white audiences. It brings stories typically relegated to shadow margins to the center stage spotlight.
Since P-Valley’s premiere, viewers have ignited social media with praise for Annan’s work as Uncle Clifford, a character unlike any most have seen on TV before. The most validating thing about that, however, may be how many of those viewers say they recognize the Uncle Cliffords of their own lives in the character, the genderfluid unofficial mayors of their communities whose flamboyance and eccentricities, if not always understood, were accepted.
Speaking to The Daily Beast from his home in Los Angeles, where he recently returned from New York City—he was performing Hall’s new play Hot Wing King off-Broadway when the pandemic shut down theaters—Annan is ecstatic. “The baby is born!” he sings into the phone, laughing. “And she’s a girl!”
Back in 2009, Hall invited Annan, through a mutual friend, to an artist collective called Black Mondays, a salon of sorts to discuss works in progress. The playwright had early pages for what would become Pussy Valley, and then P-Valley, including the introduction of a character who is in touch with both the masculine and feminine parts of themselves in ways that weren’t warring, but harmonious.
Annan would soon understand how essential Hall’s stage directions would be to the full portrait she was creating. In the P-Valley premiere, for example, there’s a scene that anyone who watched immediately raved about.
Actress Brandee Evans, who plays a dancer named Mercedes, is performing a pole routine amid a raucous cacophony: blasting music, a roaring crowd, the rustling of dollar bills raining all over her. But then the sound cuts out completely. Suddenly all you hear are Mercedes’ huffing breaths, her grunts as she hoists herself into acrobatic new positions, and the screech of friction as she uses the skin of her thighs to brake as she plummets down the pole.
Reading the script, Annan remembers Hall using the phrase “like cricket legs dancing on clouds” to describe the scene.
The key to unlocking Uncle Clifford was also in those stage directions, a small piece of writing so evocative that Annan is still able to quote it back over 10 years later: “Emerging from the shadows, eyelashes like butterflies and acrylic nails like eagle talons.” Annan understood immediately who Uncle Clifford would be.
“Both of those animals, butterflies and eagles, they fly,” he says. “Those things indicated to me that there was power in Clifford because he could fly above a situation.”
Take butterflies: “Butterflies are very gentle but they also are so strong because look what they come from and what they become.” And eagle talons: “I'm thinking about how pretty they are. I'm thinking how strong they look. It is not an apology, so that affected my gestures, the way that I would move and speak.”
Asked what it was like to be on set in full costume as Uncle Clifford in the early days of shooting, Annan admits to having some reticence and nerves. On a broad level, that echoed hopes that he would be able to play the character in a way so that audiences saw her humanity, rather than just be dazzled or distracted by her, as he puts it, “regalia.”
He also had anxiety that critics might deride her and the show as another example of Hollywood emasculating a Black man. But for him, it was an opportunity to diversify the LGBT+ spectrum, especially in the Black community, that’s shown on TV. “Uncle Clifford has full access to all of her masculinity and all of her femininity. There is no question about, ‘Am I enough of either?’”
There was a moment shooting last Sunday’s episode that Annan specifically remembers. He was in wardrobe finishing Uncle Clifford’s look, an homage to Frida Kahlo: a “Princess Leia” coiff, a flower crown, a bandera jacket over a sheer blouse, leggings, thigh-high boots, and those talons.
It was the first time he’d be shooting a massive crowd scene at the club, with dancers, extras, and scores of people who hadn’t read the script and didn’t understand Uncle Clifford as well as he knew her. He took an anxious breath. How would they react? It took all of three struts into the room before he started to hear murmurs of, “Damn… Oh wow… You look beautiful… Heyyyy…”
“It was the most beautiful moment and I feel like it actually kind of catapulted me for the rest of the series,” he says. “I was reminded that even though I have experienced homophobia in real life, even though Clifford has experienced homophobia and all of the misogyny and things like that that exist especially in the South, at the root of it, Black people really love.”
Annan grew up in Detroit. His mother is a proud Black Southern woman who was born on a US Army base in Germany, and his father is from Ghana. His experience as a gay Black man is one of survival, because it always is for his community. “But my family has always loved me for the gay man that I am and the gay boy that I was.”
His grandmother likes to tell a story about when Annan was young and playing in the garden with his grandfather. She turned to his mother, who was also there watching them, and said, “You know, I think he may be a little ‘sweet.’” His mother said, “I know.” So his grandmother replied, “Well, what are you going to do?” His mother’s response: “Love him.”
Given his love for acting and dance growing up, it wasn’t a surprise when Annan moved to New York to study at SUNY Purchase College Conservatory. After earning his B.F.A., he moved to Connecticut to be choreographer in residence at the Yale School of Drama. He moved to Los Angeles six years ago.
“I definitely grew up under that pedagogy of, you know, in order to be a valid actor, you have to play straight,” he says. “And that was my training.”
He remembers being chastised by an older professor at SUNY Purchase for being “too gay” in his performances, warned that he’d never get hired if he didn’t train that out of himself. His acting teacher, Jonathan Rosenberg, intervened, explaining that he purposefully directed Annan to embrace those parts of himself when performing: “I want him to tap into his community and who he is because one day it will be used.”
It wasn’t an easy road. Then, he jokes, all there was for him to play was Miss Raj in George C. Wolfe’s Colored Museum. If you wanted to play gay men, you had to hope to be cast in a play by Terrence McNally, “and you were a man living in the Hamptons,” Annan laughs. “I have been to the Hamptons and I love the Hamptons, but I also know what it's like to be a gay man in Detroit, you know, just regular things…”
It’s in the last year that things have changed for Annan, and at a rate that has stunned the actor. From 2017 to 2018, every role he booked on camera was a LGBT+ character, and each identified differently across the spectrum.
On Showtime’s Shameless, he played a gay preacher. On FX’s Snowfall, he was cast as a former drag queen. His character on This Is Us, a dance teacher, didn’t have his sexuality specified in the script, but Annan approached his performance as if the character was a gay man.
The day he shot his first scene for Shameless was September 11, 2017. On September 12 a year later, he filmed the pilot for P-Valley. He knows because his iPhone just did one of those random “Memory” auto alerts with a selfie he took in the trailer. It was one of those eerie, full-circle moments to digest. “If you do what you’re supposed to do, well, just watch what happens.”