Why Retta Is Now One of My All-Time Favorite People

Ok, now let me preface with a shameful disclaimer: I have not seen one episode of Parks and Recreation. Like many people I only know the American comedian Marietta Sirleaf (aka the Actress Known as Retta) from the episode where her and Aziz Ansari, who are coworkers in the show, have a “Treat Yo’ Self” year where they treat themselves to fancy things such as mimosas and “fine leather goods”. Little did I know that Retta is pretty sick and tired of people using that phrase so many times around her. That is, until I read her hilarious memoir So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know, in which she chronicles her childhood in the projects of New Jersey to her struggle with employment in Los Angeles and her success later on. I honestly think anyone of any profession can learn from Retta’s memoir, and I found reading this book especially helpful as a musician because like any entertainment field, it is competitive and you have to have a sense of humor even when struggling to be successful in the industry. I normally don’t read non-fiction but as of late I have found reading funny but touching memoirs by female comedians (the last one I read was Bossypants and I snagged a copy of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please from the library shelves) to be my go-to for continuing to persevere in the quest for my dreams.

Here are just a few things I learned from reading Retta’s book:

-Ask not, you get not. In her next to last chapter “That Year I Went Lin-Sane”, Retta talks about how her friend got her hooked on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton but that it was hard to get tickets since they were all sold out. So Retta asked her publicist, which led her publicist to connect with someone who could get her the tickets. She finally got them and, when there were subsequent showings of Hamilton she kept persisting in asking the person who gave her the tickets before if she could see it again with her friends. Retta not only got to meet the entire cast of Hamilton, but also Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, and even got to see him in the last show he would be in. Just goes to prove that when you really need help, you just need to ask because the worst someone could say is “no”. Also, Lin is a sweetie. Never met him, but from how Retta describes him, he seems like a genuinely sweet person.

-Love yourself so you can genuinely respect others. Retta has faced a lot of size-based discrimination while in the entertainment industry. In her chapter “Membership Has Privileges” she describes the surreal glamour of being at the Emmys and the Golden Globes and getting to dance, drink, socialize with the hottest stars (and exchange awkward moments with a few of them, such as when Retta mistakes Julia Stiles for another actress and Julia gives her a deer-in-the-headlights look and tells her coldly she is mistaking her for the wrong person. That moment had me shooketh, like “Wow, Julia Stiles. Just wow.”) One of the photographers at the Golden Globes refuses to take a photo of Retta because she doesn’t like the way Retta looks, and so a bunch of other photographers start photographing Retta, and when the photographer lady proceeds to catch up with her peers and finally take one of Retta, Retta holds up a finger at her and basically tells her (paraphrasing her words) “No it’s fine, don’t take my photo while every other photographer who doesn’t care what I look like does. Because you don’t deserve to.” It takes courage to love yourself after all the tears and struggle, but as Retta says in her chapter “Stretch Marks Fo Life!” you have to accept who you are and embrace your own beauty rather than feel pressured to conform to other people’s standards of beauty. She says that exercising and eating right are great, but you also need to splurge sometimes.

-Imposter syndrome comes with a nasty price tag. Spend your money and time on bouncing back from rejection, not on imposter syndrome. In the very first chapter “Eff You Effie!” Retta says that her manager called her out of the blue about fourteen years ago to tell her he booked her an audition to play Effie White in the film Dreamgirls. Even though Retta at first thought it was her dream to star in this film, she started doubting herself and her qualifications even though she had been working as an actor for ten years. Retta says that “the fear of rejection is real, my friends. When you’ve had your fair share of soul-crushing, self-esteem-destroying experiences, it’ll do a serious number on your psyche.” She experienced rejection after rejection many times during her acting career, and it can be hard to bounce back after rejection so many times, so she didn’t put herself out there for the longest time until the Dreamgirls opportunity came along. She also injured her ankle one time while dancing and thus thought that her sprained ankle would ruin her acting career, and also worried that the costume department wouldn’t find a dress for Retta’s size. More importantly, though, Retta didn’t feel she deserved to be acting alongside Jamie Foxx, Beyonce and Eddie Murphy because she felt she wasn’t what they wanted in Effie White. According to Retta:

I never said no; I was way more chickensh*t than that. I just kept avoiding it, putting it off. For about three months I never made myself available, and it got to the point where they had a movie to cast and so they did. They went with the seventh-place finalist of season three of American Idol. They cast Jennifer Hudson. She had no credits. But you know what she did have? The balls to show up to the audition.

Retta p. 11

Now, to be fair, and Retta does acknowledge this of course: Jennifer Hudson kicked serious ass in that movie and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Hell, her performance throughout the film gave me chills and all I could think was, “Woah. She is hella talented.” I then saw her in the Spike Lee film Chi-raq, in which she plays an incredibly gut-wrenching role as a mom who daughter got killed in gun violence. Jennifer Hudson is truly an incredible actress, and her approach to the audition was that simple: Just perform. Don’t try and craft a perfect image of Effie White. Just play the role and be confident even when you feel that you aren’t the right person for the role. Or as, Retta says,

I did not win an Oscar but I learned a valuable lesson that stays with me to this day and plays on a loop in my head anytime I have a big audition. It goes a little something like this: B*tch stop wasting time fearing the worst. Living through the worst is never as hard as fearing it. Fight the fear and go do what you gotta do. That’s what you came here for.

Retta, p. 13.

Honestly I think this quote will stick with me for the rest of my classical music career. In classical music the focus is on mastery and perfection, so it’s no surprise that people in conservatories spend their whole lives working at their craft (with some time to have fun and enjoy life, of course). However, we live in an age where anyone anywhere, regardless of whether or not they think they have enough expertise, can record themselves performing with their phones. There are people out there who create video blogs and even if they talk about things such as what so and so said to me or what I had lunch for today, they make millions off of it. I’m not saying that get-rich-quick stories are applicable to everyone (ya girl is one example) The work doesn’t have to be perfect because someone will tell you whether or not they like your work and you just need to keep creating and pitching yourself until you find someone who does like your work and wants to offer you an opportunity better than you ever thought possible. I get that classical music auditions are competitive, but at what point does perfection become an illusion? Because a lot of times we can’t afford to stay at home and work on something until it’s perfect; we’ve got mouths to feed, jobs to work, errands to run. Yes, it’s important to practice, but you still need to get your work out there so that the experts can see it and help you fine-tune your technique. And if you don’t end up making the orchestra audition? Don’t beat yourself up; do other things besides just music because people want a well-rounded person nowadays. If you’re going to be a successful artist you need to learn how to promote your work using other mediums, such as writing and other things.

-Keep in touch with the people you worked with. Retta and her Parks and Rec co-stars communicate via group text even to this day because they were with each other through thick and thin during all of the seasons.

-Have an attitude of gratitude and keep an open mind. Retta got to attend several hockey games, meet famous hockey players and present at the National Hockey League awards. Before, she thought she would have no interest in hockey. But after communicating with the LA Kings hockey team through Twitter, Retta came to the games and thoroughly savored every moment she was at the games, even trying to get past a security guard to go directly towards the glass to see the players in full action. She got to attend several incredible award ceremonies (and meet her dream bae, Michael Fassbender. Although I will say I had a hard time thinking of him as a bae after seeing him playing a beyond hostile slave-owner in Twelve Years a Slave. But that’s just my opinion). After growing up in such difficult circumstances and struggling even when she moved to LA for her acting career, achieving success was truly a life-changing thing for her, so she was able to appreciate gaining so much access to Hollywood and getting so many amazing acting opportunities along the way. She says that as an actor, what is most important is not getting smug and complacent with your success and quitting your work, and that as long as she is alive, she will keep being a working actor because it brings her joy. I remember Suze Orman saying something similar: keep working, even if you have all this money, always keep learning new things and always keep doing work that you love.

This blog post is by no means a comprehensive review of the book because I literally loved it so much I couldn’t stop guffawing in the library while reading it. But it gives a snapshot as to why I think you should drop everything you’re doing and treat yo’self to this epic book. (gosh why did I make a bad joke about that meme? Please forgive me Retta and don’t tweet this. I promise to not stop you in a store one day and have you say it in my camera-phone like that one fool did. I pinky-promise.)

So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know. 262 pp. 2018.

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