The Transformation Of Retta From Childhood To Parks And Recreation

Thanks to network sitcoms like "Good Girls" and "Parks and Recreation," actress/comedian Retta has become a household name. Anyone who hasn't caught her many hilarious TV/movie roles, will know her as @UnfoRETTAble on Twitter, where she often live-tweets all of her favorite shows, much to the Internet's great delight. The actress may be a familiar face to many, but some fans might not know the journey Retta took to become an A-list star. 

Retta has also seen success outside the network TV realm. She starred in the feel-good 2019 film "Good Boys" and had a starring role in Bravo's "Girlfriends' Guide To Divorce" series. Before she made it big on the small screen, she has been a well-respected presence in the standup world since the late 90s. 

In case you're one of the "Parks and Recreation" fans who knows more about Donna Meagle than the woman who portrays her, we have got you covered with a bit of background knowledge. 

Retta grew up in a hard-working immigrant family

Retta was born Marietta Sangai Sirleaf on April 12, 1970, in Newark, New Jersey. Her parents were Liberian immigrants and often had multiple family members, up to six people, living in a two-bedroom apartment. Even though they struggled financially, Retta turned to TV for solace in those times. Later on, her parents were able to move the family to a seven-bedroom home in Cliffwood Beach, New Jersey, which was a better environment, as per her interview with The Guardian. She also shares a family tree with the former president of Liberia and Novel Peace Prize winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as per AmoMama

Despite her struggles in her youth, Retta seems to have made the best out of her high school years. She told the Guardian that she was very involved at school, including be a part of French club, calculus club, cheerleading, the wrestling team, and home-ec club.

"I was always silly in high school," Retta told Essence. "I used to always get in trouble because I was laughing." Retta's natural humor went on to be a major part of her career later in life. 

She graduated pre-med from college

Retta may have loved comedy TV from a young age, but her initial career path definitely wasn't in the entertainment business. She graduated from Duke University in 1992 with a degree in sociology. 

Retta completed her pre-med requirements when she graduated from Duke, and she was taking a year off to study for the MCAT exam to further pursue medicine. "I still have my MCAT study books and all my science notebooks in the closet of my guest room. Because I really feel like, if this does not work out, I can pack up those bags, move in with my parents, start studying for the MCATs, and go to medical school," Retta said to Vulture

Chemistry may have been Retta's wheelhouse in college, but her natural comedic side was there as well. "I went to college with a bunch of clowns, and it allowed me to be constantly around humor," Retta told Duke Magazine. "My girlfriends from college, we still crack up each other." 

She worked as a chemist before doing comedy

After college, Retta worked as a chemist for Glaxo Pharmaceuticals in North Carolina while studying for her med school exams. When she had time on the side, she would do stand up on the side at Goodnights Comedy Club in Raleigh, as per Vogue. Retta believes that her experience in the "real world" outside of Hollywood has made her a better actor. "The more people I see, and the more people I get to observe, the more I have to offer when it comes to parts," she said in the interview. 

It is full-circle to think about Retta's "Good Girls" character perfecting her process for creating counterfeit money in an at-home lab when Retta really did kick off her adult life as a scientist. But her longtime love of TV comedy led her to make a drastic decision that changed the course of her life as she knew it.

She moved to LA to follow her dreams

Like many people trying to make it big, Retta left her life in North Carolina for Hollywood to pursue her dreams of acting. One day in 1996 she packed up and moved to L.A. on a whim, with support from her parents. "I was like, 'I don't know what I'm going to have to do to do this, but I'm going to do it,'" Retta told Backstage. "'I'm not driving across this country to not do it.' I always had it in my head that it was going to happen."

With a new city came a name change. During an open mic night, she changed her name from Marietta to Retta as a result of her "being lazy," she told Essence. Apparently, the MC had difficulty pronouncing her name to introduce her, so she changed it right then and there. "Just Retta. It stuck with me ever since," she added. 

Retta worked hard to get noticed in LA, eventually moving to the comedy college touring circuit in 1998. A major success came in 1999 when she was crowned the first-ever winner of Comedy Central's Laugh Riots Stand-Up Competition, which helped her meet even more of the right people. She continued doing stand-up while pursuing screen work on the side, as per THR

Retta first appeared on screen in a late-'90s sitcom

Retta told Essence that with her 1996 move to LA, she was going to find a way to make money from being on TV. "All the people I looked up to — Roseanne, Tim Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld — were stand-up comedians who used humor to get on TV shows," she said. 

The rising star fulfilled her acting dreams by completing her first-ever on-screen appearance in a 1997 episode of "Moesha." However, once her comedy tours started picking up, she struggled a bit with picking up Hollywood gigs while being on the road. "It kind of took me away from what the plan was," she told THR. "You can't audition for [shows] if you're in North Dakota." 

Retta made her big-screen debut a little later in the 2002 raunchy comedy "Slackers," where she plays an outwardly-annoyed office manager at a college. Before getting her big break with "Parks and Recreation," she had a few guest roles in shows like "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" and a recurring role on 2006's "Deadly Hollywood Sins" TV series, as per IMDb

Retta turned a guest role into her big break

It's hard to imagine "Parks and Recreation" without Retta's portrayal of another office manager — Donna Meagle, who most famously coined the phrase "treat yo' self." Retta says when she first auditioned, Donna seemed like a "glorified background" character, which was true for much of Season 1. Her hilarious quips and facial reactions led her to becoming a series regular in Season 3, according to Vulture

Retta told that she and Donna have a lot of similarities, like their mannerisms, their Blackness, and their "boy crazy" nature. "Once the writers got to know the actors, they would include certain things — personality wise — for the characters because they knew you liked that sort of thing," Retta said. "They had seen me do a comedy show where I sang classical music, which is why I ended up singing at Ben and Leslie's wedding."

She appreciates her "Parks & Recreation" character for breaking the mold for Black, female characters on TV. Above all, she appreciated that Donna was never rooted in stereotypes. "As a plus-sized black girl, we're usually a trope," she told The Guardian. "I welcome the opportunity to play human beings.