The undeniable heart of Starz’s P-Valley is the non-binary character, Uncle Clifford.
Uncle Clifford, played by Nicco Annan, is the owner of The Pynk, a strip club located in the small town of Chucalissa, Miss. The drama, which returns for its second season at 9 p.m. on Friday, tells the story of the men and women attached to that shake joint.
In an exclusive interview with TV Fanatic, Annan, the only actor to have played Uncle Clifford since 2009, first in the play “Pussy Valley” and now on P-Valley, explained the evolution of his character.
From his home in Los Angeles, Annan credits Katori Hall, who created both the play and the TV series, for involving him in an extremely collaborative process of developing Clifford.
“From the early days of doing this, Katori would ask me questions,” he recalled. “There were a lot of things that came up through me that she was able to use. It’s been a true collaboration in all the senses of the word, from the design to Clifford’s style to her love of music and dancing. There’s been a lot that’s been baked into it.”
Annan explained that P-Valley has a story that can speak to anybody. He discovered this back when the play was being work-shopped at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, Minn.
“We would watch these people in Minnesota, who for the most part had no connection to the black Southern experience, be so moved,” he said. “It was an indication of the depth and the heart of the piece.”
He added that it’s “sweet” that those connected to The Pynk go into people’s homes weekly.
“I think that the show being in people’s living rooms is much more effective than it was on the stage,” he judged. “Since it can’t be binged, it’s kind of like appointment theater. You’re seeing a film each week that the episodes air. It’s like, ‘Here’s a new plate. Here’s a new meal.’ ”
Annan loves the freedom of portraying Uncle Clifford.
“When I’m playing Uncle Clifford, it’s like when you are on the [dance] pole when you are literally flying and defying gravity,” he enthused. “You’re spinning but you’re in the same spot.
“It’s like a superpower to be able to tap into a level of freedom where you do not have to censor yourself or put yourself in any kind of box, like masculinity or femininity. Playing the character is a wild roller coaster for me because she goes to so many places so fast. It can feel like lightning.”
This season, Hall addresses the coronavirus pandemic which kept the series off the air since 2020. On the show, Uncle Clifford came up with the ingenious concept of Pussyland, a combination car-wash, wings joint, and strip club that patrons can enjoy from the safety of their car.
“You have to stay afloat,” Annan simply explained.
P-Valley also examines what characters have been doing over the years of the pandemic.
“[The pandemic] has caused us to question what is the thing that will break us,” Annan said. “What is too much? Whether that is you losing your business, you losing your job, losing a family member, or not being able to be at the bedside of somebody hospitalized. A show can be a perfect time capsule of how we got through this time.”
There’s a new leadership dynamic at The Pynk, with Clifford sharing power with former dancer Autumn Nights, after she put up $250,000 to save the club at a foreclosure auction on P-Valley Season 1 Episode 8.
Their relationship will go through some growing pains, as they have different approaches to business. Autumn crunches numbers while Clifford is a people person.
“It gets really rocky but it gets sweet as well,” Annan explained. “Clifford is not accustomed to having to work with anyone. Her having to share that throne will definitely be interesting.”
Autumn will concentrate on keeping The Pynk afloat while Clifford is more concerned with helping people.
“That’s where all Clifford’s rules come from,” Annan said. “They come from a place of forming formidable characteristics for you as a person who can make it in this world.
“Being nonbinary, Uncle Clifford has experienced so much adversity, she’s experienced being locked up in these boxes. She’s figured out a small space for herself in The Pynk and is sharing that nest with those other little birdies that come through.”
Clifford and Autumn owe each other big time. Autumn saved Clifford’s club while Clifford helped Autumn deal with her murderous ex. But Autumn still has secrets so Clifford isn’t sure that she can be trusted, especially if the concept of a casino in Chucalissa gets revived.
“Uncle Clifford loves hard but she’s not a fool,” Annan said. “They both are quite savvy as they move and navigate through things. But no matter how close they may get, Uncle Clifford will always look at Autumn with a side-eye, wondering what knife is behind her back now.”
Having a say in this power struggle may be Mercedes, the club’s lead dancer, and Autumn’s temporary housemate.
“Clifford refers to Mercedes as her bottom girl, meaning she is the rock, she is the ride-or-die,” Annan said.
“Her harshness is identifiable to Uncle Clifford because she knows what Mercedes has been through. Watching her journey to get out of the club will be interesting especially as fresh blood comes into the club.”
In the past, Clifford has depended too much on fate for help, ignoring or reacting to problems rather than acting. That may be changing.
“That is a question she is dealing with: What can she do to move forward, not just with the club but with herself as a person and her relationships?” Annan said. “I wonder if Uncle Clifford might be ready to pass the throne if she’s ready for a new chapter, something totally different.”
Two fan favorites may be pariahs this season.
Young rapper Lil Murda’s relationship with Clifford fell apart when Murda choose to stay in the closet. Keyshawn pulled a gun on lovable bouncer Diamond when he was beating on her abusive, cracker baby-daddy, Derek.
With Murda and Keyshawn seemingly going on tour together, does that mean neither will be seen at The Pynk this season?
“That means that they are on their journey,” Annan explained cryptically. “They make their way in and out the doors [of The Pynk] like most people. Whether they are there to stay, that is still the question.”
The message that Annan hopes viewers take away from P-Valley is that all people are worthy of love.
“There’s a line from this season: ‘They say fairy tales are just horror stories with happy endings,’ “ he added. “We all have the power, in our fairy tales, to write [that ending]. We can do that with love.
“When you watch the show, I hope that viewers are able to take those nuggets of self-love, self-awareness, and empowerment with them and they can extend that grace to other people that may be different from them as they encounter them in the real world,” Annan concluded.
P-Valley airs at 9/8c on Fridays on Starz.
Dale McGarrigle is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.