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‘P-Valley’ Is a Queer Revolution for Strip Club TV Dramas

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage... Nicco Annan as Uncle Clifford, a genderqueer character like nothing TV has ever seen

In a Dirty Delta strip club lives one of TV’s baddest queer characters. Her hair is perfectly shined and curled. She keeps her nails trimmed like eagle talons and beard sharpened to frame her enviable mug. She is Uncle Clifford, and she owns the Pynk. 

In Starz’s new drama P-Valley, Nicco Annan (This Is Us, Shameless) is Uncle Clifford. Annan originated the character, who uses she/her pronouns, in playwright Katori Hall’s 2015 play Pussy Valley. When Hall adapted her drama for TV, Annan readily returned to play what he calls a role of a lifetime: a gender-fluid hustler and owner of a Mississippi strip club, the Pynk.

One of the most engrossing new series of the year, P-Valley shows the dominance, athleticism and intelligence of adult performers and those who find solace and sensuality at strip clubs. Clifford is perhaps the most mesmerizing of all in her stilettos and ascots, a queer person exploring intimate Black relationships and power in a conservative town’s heteronormative space.

Annan hoped on the phone with MEL to discuss adapting Uncle Clifford from stage to screen, the revolutionary power of ordinary Black queer relationships, and the year Hollywood finally let him play gay characters. 

You’re in Los Angeles. How long have you lived there?
I’ve been in L.A. for six years. I’m originally from Detroit but left when I was 17. I went to college and studied at the Conservatory at Purchase College in New York. [Then] regional theater, Broadway, Off Broadway and tours. When I first met Katori [Hall] for the play Pussy Valley, I was out in New York.

Do you remember what year that was?
It was about 10 years ago. Maybe the fall of 2009. We first read the first four pages she had written. She was going to, like, a pole fitness class and all of this stuff. That inspired her to go down this road of research and exploration to give a narrative to the story of these women. [Hall] had mentioned in [a writers’ group] that she was looking for an actor that can embody this character of Uncle Clifford. She just wanted to play around with this idea of masculinity and femininity in one character. A friend of mine and fellow writer Dominique Morisseau said, “I think you should think about Nicco.”

Katori invited me over to one of their, it’s called, Black Mondays. [It was like] we were back in the ’70s. It was a collective of artists. I read the first four pages. It was only one scene that Uncle Clifford was in. She literally just had like a little nugget, but I was like, this is interesting because what’s on the page is described as masculine and feminine in equal measure. Emerging from the shadows, eyelashes like butterflies and acrylic nails like eagle talons.

That’s awesome.
Yeah, when I read that, I was like, okay, I’m here. Whatever this ride is, I’m here for it. I never imagined playing a role as magnificent and fulfilling as Uncle Clifford.

It’s fun to hear you describe the character at the beginning. Going from the stage to screen, what changed about your portrayal?
The play was really the genesis of the story Katori wanted to tell. It differs in that, in the play, you were bound within the club. With the TV show, you were able to really grow outside of that club. 

Was it an easy transition from the play version of the character to the TV version?
Given how the script had changed, yes. Also, the medium. I was well aware that for me as an actor it felt like I did not have to push to the back of the house and to the balcony of the theater. Doing the show P-Valley is a more intimate experience of Uncle Clifford, if you ask me.

Starting with the first episode, you see Uncle Clifford in various parts of her life. The moment she’s in the club and how that’s different from when she’s at the payday-loan shop.
Mhm. [Laughs]

It’s rare to see on TV how queer people’s dress changes depending on the setting!
Let me tell you something. Uncle Clifford to me is just all things. How she wakes up and how she feels that day, that’s how she dresses. Getting dressed to go to that loan office was really heavy. We shot that pretty early on. I just thought about my nails. My nails emotionally kind of took me out because I felt like I was having to remove. I knew that I was going to a place that did not understand Uncle Clifford fully and that would ridicule her. And, you know, possibly might not give her a loan because of how she’s dressed, who she is and how she identifies and moves through the world.

But she still had to put on her wigs. She still was not going to totally succumb to it. As gay people, as black people — marginalized communities — you learn how to have activism and survival at the same time. I like that the show is a piece of work in a world that shows how things can work together. How, you know, healthy relationships between communities can coexist. But at the same time, how there is still oppression.

Then you see Uncle Clifford at her most confident in the club. What it was like to do those club scenes where she’s doing the most in the best way?
Come on for doing the most! [Laughs] Doing the club was so much fun. It often allowed us not to go to clubs in real life. I just want to be quiet. I want to turn down after filming — but it was so liberating.

You do get glimpses of Uncle Clifford on the pole herself. Being a dancer, I wanted to really get across to the audience how street dance is like club life. It’s huge in the gay community. Not because it’s the face of debauchery and all of that. It literally is about freedom. People on the dance floor. Studio 54. The Roxy back in the day. Octagon in New York. These are some old-school clubs people would go to just be their free and unbanded selves. I wanted to capture that when Uncle Clifford is performing. Because everything is about flight or sink. So those women are flying around the polls, and Uncle Clifford is flying around that club, just dancing through the people.

It reminded me how accepting people can be when you have pure joy. There were things that, I can’t lie, made me nervous. Early on, I had some heavy nerves coming into one scene. What have you seen?

I’ve seen the first two episodes. What was the scene that made you nervous?
It was in two. It’s the Frida Kahlo look. I was like, oh my gosh, what are people going to say? I really had armor that sometimes you have to have as an LGBTQ person to move in the world. I will cut you down before you cut me down. That bite. That wit. I walked out onto the floor of the club, and there was this murmur of people. They started to talk to Uncle Clifford: All right. Hey. Girl, where did you get that from? All of these positive affirmations. And it hit me: Oh my gosh, I forgot. I forgot that my people love

Yes, there is homophobia out there. Yes, there is the hypermasculinity and all of those things that exist in hip-hop culture. But I still think, at the core, people are really more good than they are bad, especially when you meet them with your truth. That’s what Uncle Clifford always does to me. She always is walking in her truth of who she is. You can look at all of that regalia and see that’s really who this woman is.

The press notes mention that you identify as a Black southern man, but you were born in Detroit. Is Black southern culture something you feel is more than physical space?
Absolutely. In the Midwest for a lot of people, especially Black people, their roots are in the South because of the Migration. So I call Detroit “Up South.”

I feel like the culture of the South is definitely laced in the show from the fashion to the food and to the language. Southern language is very colorful and musical. That’s definitely one of the things that’s most prominent in Katori’s work.

The language is very casual in P-Valley. It’s not trying to be one of those shows that only speaks in, like, a white, literary dialect.
It was important letting language and the music of the world, not just the tracks of music but the music of the language, really bring the audience into the realities of the world. You can see all the complexities and the nuances these people have that sometimes you could overlook in real life.

How does P-Valley compare to other projects or auditions you’ve gone out for?
I’m not going to lie to you. I noticed a change within a year. Within a physical calendar year, I started to book roles on major shows where the characters were somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. In Shameless, I played a gay preacher who was in support of speaking out against conversion therapy. On Snowfall, [set] in the ’80s, I played a former drag queen from the house of LaBeija and paid homage. In This Is Us, I played a dance teacher who was gay but their sexuality was never touched on.

September 11, 2017, was my first day shooting on Shameless. September 12, 2018, was when we shot the pilot for P-Valley. Within that year, I was like, Hollywood is opening up. I had never played a gay character on camera before.

Before 2017?
Yeah. Prior, it felt like the conversations were happening and it was growing. But no. Even in all of that, I had not been able to play a character as nuanced, rich, truthful and raw as Uncle Clifford. That was a part of the draw. I knew this role would really expand the lexicon of characters and really show people that it’s possible.

Yeah, I can’t think of any other character quite like her.
I know. I’m here for it. 

Uncle Clifford and hypermasculine rapper Lil Murda play love interests. What did it mean to showcase this queer Black relationship? Were you aware of all the nuances of it at the time?
I was totally aware of it. Sometimes our stories can be oversimplified, and I appreciated the show tackled head-on so many different topics and the intersect of Black love, LGBTQ community and the Black community. Seeing those relationships work and dance together in such a healthy and realistic way, it was refreshing, and it was absolutely intentional. There were times where we would shoot things and Katori would say, “Hey, we don’t do that in this world because love is possible. They’ve told that story before. We are telling a new story.” The relationship between Uncle Clifford and Lil Murda is such a beautiful and special one. You definitely will see them on their journey, but I think it would be a more normalized journey than you may be accustomed to. Which is revolutionary.