Taking in that first full-sight of Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) on Starz's new hit P-Valley is a study in somewhat jarring contrasts. Owner of the strip club The Pynk, Uncle Clifford (who goes by she/her pronouns) wears a beard and traditionally female garb; she is a Black person in a position of power making a low key illegal negotiation with a white police officer; she is the non-gender-conforming boss in a space designated to celebrate heteronormative rituals; she is an ally to the girls inside The Pynk and their brutal overseer, too. From the moment she enters the screen, it's clear we've just met someone who's about to upend our world.
We'd already been told, when Autumn (Elarica Johnson) saunters up to the entrance on her first night there, that Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) makes the rules ("No funny money," "Men $20, bitches $30"), but nothing can quite prepare us for the first sight of Uncle Clifford, coming out from a shadow, showing her might. She's just tossed out a man who got too handsy in the VIP and issues a threat: "You best calm down before I tell your wife where you was tonight." The man lamely demands his admission fee back and Uncle Clifford, waving her fan in a way that makes her wig move so, snaps, "You want yo cum back too?" This, we come to understand right away, is P-Valley's HBIC.
Assumptions and conventional wisdom about homophobia in the Black community say Uncle Clifford would be at the bottom of the standard social hierarchy but here she is -- a 6'2, dark-skinned hunk of human in a wig and blouse, putting everybody in check. "I'm instituting some new rules for y'all hoes, starting tonight!" she barks in a later scene.
Uncle Clifford comes partly from the imagination and experiences of P-Valley's creator Katori Hall, and partly from the careful consideration of Nicco Annan. "[Uncle Clifford] is the fusion of a few people," Hall told TV Guide via phone. "My momma, who ain't nobody to mess with, and my dad, who ain't nobody to mess with either -- he carries a gun -- but is very nurturing. And my real Uncle Clifford could read you for filth. I wanted to portray [Black people] in a nuanced and complicated way, especially since Black queer folk are underrepresented. I wanted to normalize non-binary people. Especially down South, they exist. I've seen them, I've been in the room with them -- they are amazing."
Indeed, part of what makes Uncle Clifford so resonant is not the fact that she's unbelievable but, the opposite; she's very real. As people who've spent time down South know, particularly in bigger cities like Atlanta and Memphis, non-binary Black people are often neighborhood fixtures, accepted and even celebrated within a community's social fabric. In pop culture, people like Big Freedia, the late Messy Mya, and Alabama's Prancing Elites are just some of the Black genderqueer/non-binary individuals who represent many more folks like them at home.
For Annan, an out gay man who played Uncle Clifford in the play that birthed this show, the character represents a quiet revolution. "When Uncle Clifford is described in the play, it was 'Masculine and feminine in equal measure.' When I read that on the page I said, 'Oh my God, that sounds dope.' I know a lot of people who have experienced trauma as an LGBT person, but I know a lot of people who were accepted for who they were, too. In high school, there were a lot of Black women who accepted me and [defended] me. I'm not non-binary but, my male cousins, they ride for me. I wanted those conversations to be part of this world."
Annan's on-screen choices anchor Uncle Clifford in a specific, hyper-real story and sense of place. He insisted on keeping facial hair to convey the idea that patrons aren't "coming to a drag club or a gay club -- you're coming to an oasis where whatever you desire can come true...but it's also something that says to hypermasculine men 'Don't try me.'" Annan also nails regional dialect with disarming accuracy, turning "better not" into "best not," and "around here" into "'round chere." Annan gives Uncle Clifford grace and allure, using an informed honey-drenched drawl, a big-booty gait, and a way of delivering devastating shade with a seductive purr that makes Uncle Clifford a type of character we've never seen before, and more importantly, can't look away from.
"The Pynk got everything that a man needs," she says at one point. "We got white bitches, redbone bitches, midnight blue bitches, Molly, hot wings, Tums after the hot wings." And the most fascinating character on TV this summer, too.
P-Valley airs Sundays at 8/7c on Starz.