(Photo: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost)
This profile is part of our Culture Shifters series, which highlights people who are changing the way we think about the world around us. Read about film archivist Maya Cade, internet stars Keyon Elkins and Drew Afualo, rapper Latashá, music historian Katelina Eccleston, artist Kay Rufai, filmmaker Alika Tengan and actor Rhoyle Ivy King.
You feel Nicco Annan’s presence immediately when he walks in a room. Between his 6-foot-2 height, vibrant fashions and melodic baritone, his energy is dominating. But not so dominating that it engulfs. Instead, his energy is as warm and generous as it is regal and captivating. Similar to Uncle Clifford, the beloved house mother he portrays on “P-Valley,” Annan feels like home.
That’s no surprise. For two seasons strong, the Detroit-born actor has invited TV viewers down to The Pynk, a legacied stripper joint in the fictional Chucalissa, Mississippi, where you can get a lap dance, lemon pepper wings extra wet and a brush with seduction in one fell swoop — but only if you follow Cliff’s rules. With her flashy fashions, unique prowess, country twang and grandmother-like phrases that make you chuckle and think at the same time, it’s hard not to feel Uncle Clifford. Really feel her. And you’d be hard pressed to find another character like her in TV history.
Annan has been playing the role of the nonbinary HBIC for about the past decade, since he was cast in Katori Hall’s “Pussy Valley,” the play from which the television show was created. The play ran only in Minneapolis.
The actor, who worked closely with Hall in molding Uncle Clifford, knows that this character represents the intersection of so many people’s real everyday life experiences. Annan breathed life into Cliff. That’s why the breakout character has been able to keep viewers enraptured in all her glory.
Season 2 finds Uncle Clifford at risk of losing The Pynk, yet again, while navigating the weight of a world plagued by COVID-19. She’s taking care of everyone — her grandmother, her dancers, her club’s legacy — but has neglected taking care of her heart as she fights the honest, raw love she shares with a rising local rapper half her age, Lil Murda. Her story is about vulnerability, trials, triumphs and community care. Her story is about learning to choose love, despite what the world believes a Black nonbinary person should experience. She represents humanity.
The key ingredient to Annan harnessing Uncle Clifford’s power? “Intimacy,” Annan said.
Nicco Annan said the "P-Valley" role of Uncle Clifford "literally was the thing that kind of woke me up.” (Photo: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost)
When Annan auditioned in 2009, Hall invited him to read for the part of Uncle Clifford in her apartment. She was originally only in one out of the two scenes in the five-page script. The description of Uncle Clifford — in combination with the dialogue between dancers Mercedes, Mississippi and Gidget — energized him.
“It literally was the thing that kind of woke me up,” Annan said in reference to Uncle Clifford. “What is this character? Because normally when you would read a character breakdown, it’ll say, ‘Black, male.’ Or it’ll say, ‘30s, male.’ Or, ‘Black, gay, flamboyant.’ And it didn’t say that.”
He recalled one of the best notes he’d ever gotten from Hall in portraying Cliff. “Dare to bore me,” she told Annan. It allowed him to “breathe and just be.”
“I think that Katori created the character to be all the things,” Annan said. “It resonates with me when plus-size or full-figured women and full-figured men that are straight, that are gay, that are nonbinary, and everybody kind of identifies with her in a way. That’s a gag for me, for real. I’m like, oh, this is why the SlimFast didn’t work for you when you were a kid. This is why it took time for me to even be comfortable in my body and to be able to walk in that light, to stand in that sun; it’s an honor.”
“Growing up, I didn’t see myself, but I knew that there was something else inside me as an actor, as a person,” says Nicco Annan, who grew up in Detroit. (Photo: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost)
The world Annan grew up in didn’t want him or any other young, Black gay kids from the Midwest to see characters like Uncle Clifford on screen. He knew he wanted more out of life than to be the heir of his family-owned carwash. He was teased for having dark skin and Ghanaian roots and being heavyset.
“Growing up, I didn’t see myself, but I knew that there was something else inside me as an actor, as a person,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been through this fire because I’ve been trusted with a testimony. That’s really how I feel because there are people who look like me, people who come from the Midwest, there are people in this whole LGBTQ+ spectrum that have not had a level of visibility.”
He visited Ghana, his dad’s home country, for the first time when he was 10. He was reluctant to take the long plane ride, especially after a classmate told him he’d be sleeping with animals. But that trip to Ghana helped illuminate some things about Annan that the U.S. wanted to hide from him. That trip helped him embrace his dark skin, full lips and gap in his front teeth — “Back home, having a gap is distinguished. That means that God smiled on you.”
He sat in the chief’s throne on a floor made of pure gold. It was a gradual process, but Annan, whose first name translates to “first-born son of a prince,” began to come into himself.
“To have that kind of experience as a child, even being teased and all that stuff prior to, it changed for me. I was like, ‘Oh, you’re worth something. And everyone just doesn’t know. Everyone just doesn’t know.’”
As Annan’s dance and choreography career merged with an interest in acting, he met agents, executives and others along the way who didn’t recognize his true worth. They’d tell him he had to lose weight in order to make it on TV. But with nods from legends like poet Maya Angelou and dancer George Faison, Annan knew he was destined for more.
That’s why the slow ascension of his success as Uncle Clifford means so much to him. With it, he’s been able to create a framework that’s allowed his TV dreams to come true. It also led to roles on “This Is Us” and “All American,” and choreography work on “All American: Homecoming.”
He also acknowledges that characters like Uncle Clifford only recently began to have the space to exist on TV. GLAAD’s 2022 “Where We Are on TV” report found that 11.9% of all characters on prime-time TV are of the LGBTQ community, a record high.
While filming Season 1 of “P-Valley,” Annan recalled, a nonbinary production assistant thanked him for the work he was doing on the show. When Annan told them he was just doing his job, the PA told him they were dressed in all black for the job but normally they dress like Uncle Clifford. They told Annan, “If I had seen a character on TV like Uncle Clifford when I was younger, I wouldn’t have tried to take my life.”
Annan said he was “stuck.” He said, “Because, my God, what a pressure, but also what a gift, what a gift. It has taught me that, Nicco Annan, you have a place.”
Nicco Annan says he wants more people who look like him to feel celebrated in Hollywood. (Photo: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost)
Embodying this role has done a lot for Annan, reminding himself of the space that is rightfully his in this industry as well.
“If this had happened in 2009, when we first started the project, it would be a very different experience. I don’t think that the world was ready,” Annan said. “I think that the world is in a place where we can see women for who they truly are. We can see Black bodies, we can see full bodies in a space that are not overly sexualized. There’s a level of artistry, there’s a level of appreciation for the sheen, for the stretch marks, for the tiger stripes and the sun rays.”
Annan has TV and film plans on the horizon. He hopes, more than anything, that more people who look like him experience true celebration in Hollywood, and not just in the form of awards and accolades.
“There will never be another Nicco Annan. I’m not trying to be anyone else. There are many people that have gone before me that I stand on their shoulders, and I love for all of us to be able to have time and shine. It’s really dope to be around, especially on a pop culture kind of show, and bringing this level of artistry and integrity to the characters. I always want to tell gritty, hard, beautiful, complex stories because in there is light. In there is fun, and there is joy. That is what this experience of life is truly all about.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.