February 23, 1970 – Carol Denise “Niecy” Ensley Nash:
“I understand being in a place where people’s idea of you is a little limiting and narrow.”
Nash has become slowly ubiquitous in television projects in the past decade, but the TNT series Claws brought her the role she had always deserved: the lead.
I imagine you could use a bit of good news. Although, on March 12, 2020 Warner Bros. Television shut down production on the Claws‘ fourth and final season because of some sort of pandemic, filming resumed last November and fans will get one more blast of Desna Simms and her crew.
Nash has been stealing scenes since I first spotted her on Comedy Central’s Reno 911! (2003–2009). She had been working steadily since her debut with a bit part in the lesbian-themed film Boys On The Side starring Whoopi Goldberg, Drew Barrymore and Mary-Louise Parker in 1995. She guest-starred, popping up on all sorts of shows such as NYPD Blue (1993-2005), Reba (2001-07), Girlfriends (2001-08), and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015).
Nash hosted Clean House on the Style Network from 2003 to 2010, and she grabbed lots of attention as a series regular, being hilarious on The Mindy Project; heartbreaking on Masters Of Sex; screwy on Scream Queens; and being complicated on the profoundly underrated Getting On on HBO. Nash played civil rights activist Richie Jean Jackson in the film Selma directed by Ava DuVernay.
She has enjoyed a career that would be the envy of many an actor, but for a woman of color in her 40s, it has been extraordinary.
Claws was one of the great delights of last two summers. Executive-produced by Rashida Jones, it is a midnight-dark comedy about a group of women working at a central Florida nail salon who, between giving manicures, find themselves indulging in a little bit of drug money laundering. It brought some fun in the not so funny first summer of Trump, but most especially for having Nash move from supporting-roles to the spotlight, where she belongs. Along with the Netflix’s Grace and Frankie and female wrestling comedy GLOW, Better Things on FX, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel from Amazon, television now offers more fully drawn funny female characters that shine without the help of their men.
“I think it’s perfect because so many times when you are a woman in a TV show, you’re after a man. The men are leading the charge and the men are doing all of these great things in the story and the woman’s just kind of there as an action piece. Well, the thing about our show is that the women are leading the charge. The women are full, independently full. They have lives. The other thing I love about our show is that most of our cast are women of a certain age and we’re still viable and funny and sexy and we’re all of these amazing things: complicated, conflicted, and we’re enough. We’re enough.”
Nash had to push against an industry that traditionally does not trust a woman like her to deliver the goods. Nash:
“I was introduced to the business doing a lot of broad comedies and the industry was very polite, but they were very clear: you have a lane, this is what you do. As artists, sometimes it’s challenging to break out of how people see you, but at the same time, you want to eat, so I kept doing comedy, not necessarily because that’s what I wanted to do but because I wanted to provide for my family as well.”
As a black woman, she had to fight against the showbiz notions of the kind of characters she might play. Nash:
“They want you to be the sassy neighbor, the sassy friend, the sassy mother, and it’s like, can I play some other things?”
It seemed to really happen for Nash, with HBO’s hospital dramedy Getting On. She finally had the chance to use her dramatic acting chops with her subtle, empathetic performance as hospice nurse Didi Ortley, which led to critical acclaim and two consecutive Emmy Award nominations.
Like Getting On, Claws moves between pratfalls and pathos, but unlike her role as a struggling nurse working long hours, Nash’s role as a Florida nail salon owner allows her the chance to show off her sexy, glamorous side.
“I combed my hair every day myself on Getting On and I just got up and came in, so it was freeing in that respect, but I’m a girly girl. I love all the hair and the makeup and the accoutrements. I love it.”
On Claws, Nash’s character, Desna, wears a variety of extravagantly, colorful, bejeweled designer nails and elaborate hair extensions. Nash:
“Those nails are absolutely challenging. I mean, you have to relearn how to use your phone, and forget it if you’ve got on a complicated outfit and you’ve got to go to the bathroom. We’re all just trying to hold it until lunchtime because it’s a production. But, it’s so necessary because the nails in our show also tell a story; they’re like another character.”
Desna’s salon staff includes her BFF Jenn (Jenn Lyon), a trying to stay sober ex-party girl raising two children of different races from two ex-boyfriends; and Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes), a butch lesbian with cornrows and a guy’s swagger, providing security for the salon with a baseball bat. Quiet Ann’s specialty is getting straight women to hook up with her. Add in Polly, played by the always terrific Carrie Preston (True Blood, The Good Wife), a perky preppy who recently served time in prison for identity theft and who has an ankle bracelet monitoring her movements and likes to invent stories about why she ended up doing time; and Virginia (Karrueche Tran), who is desperate to fit in despite the racial insults about her ambiguously Asian features.
The whole thing feels like Steel Magnolias and Breaking Bad had a baby in The Everglades. I swear, this series could only have been set in Florida. Where else would you see a funeral procession led by flat-bed trucks with strippers on their poles?
The male characters are rather interesting too, especially Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris as Big Daddy the bisexual head of a crime family, and cutie-pie Evan Daigle as his boy toy. Yet, Claws is a refreshingly female-centric series with women as producers, writers and directors. Nash:
“Some days we show up and only need the boys to hold onto the cables and move furniture around.”
Nash was born in Compton. She is an advocate for safety in schools. In 1993, her younger brother was shot in a California high school, which led their mother to form M.A.V.I.S. (Mothers Against Violence In Schools). Nash:
“I do believe in gun control laws. At the same time, we are living in a time when people want to be known for something so bad, and when you want that instant celebrity, you find it, sometimes, in the worst way. It could be as remedial as being on a reality television show acting out or making sure everybody knows your name because you are part of some crazy, tragic court case because you did something heinous.”
When Nash was 5 years old, she saw entertainer Lola Falana on television and turned to her grandmother and said:
“I want to be black, fabulous and on television.”
When she was nine, she spotted a man while visiting the Hollywood Walk of Fame with her father. She walked right up and introduced herself to him. That man was Ed Asner, and Nash told him to remember her name, because one day it would be etched on one of the stars on the sidewalk they stood on. Last July, Nash received that star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Ava DuVernay cast her in one of the best Netflix series, When They See Us (2019). For her performance she received critical praise and an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie nomination. It is based on events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case and explores the lives and families of the five male suspects who were falsely accused then prosecuted on charges related to the rape and assault of a woman in Central Park. The series features a first-rate ensemble cast, including Jharrel Jerome, Asante Blackk, Jovan Adepo, Michael K. Williams, Logan Marshall-Green, Joshua Jackson, Blair Underwood, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, and jailbird, Felicity Huffman.
While gains have been made, The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film revealed that only five percent of television female characters were Asian, five percent are Latinas, and five percent identified as some other ethnicity.
Also last year, she played Civil Rights advocate Florynce Kennedy in the Hulu miniseries Mrs. America. Later in 2020, Nash signed on to host her own syndicated daytime talk show for CBS Television Distribution.
Last year, over the Labor Day weekend, Nash announced that she and singer Jessica Betts had married, while coming out as bisexual.