Retta, Class of 1992, helps give a message for our times

Actor costarred in the Parks and Recreation TV reunion

People who watched A Parks and Recreation Special, the one-off reunion show about the TV series’ characters coping with the COVID-19 lockdown (it ran in early May), knew they were seeing something remarkable. Sure, the laughs were there: The characters spent the half-hour special addressing their situation in the surreal and witty way that defined the show. But more, as they interacted in one of the videochats that during the pandemic have become omnipresent, they almost constantly reminded each other: Take care of one another. Take care of yourselves. Trying not to get COVID-19 is important, but also, as several characters said to one another, remember to look after your mental and emotional health.

According to Retta ’92 (born Marietta Sangai Sirleaf), who starred as Donna on the show and the special, that message landed. The nationwide moment of comfort and kindness provoked more than just donations (the fundraising effort for food bank organization raised $3 million in only the first days after the broadcast; the cast and crew provided matching donations). “It was the comments and the DMs I got on social media” that got to her, Retta says. “Where every person was telling me they were crying, and they were so grateful.” People sent screen grabs showing the donations they’d made, pictures of their families watching the show. “It gave a moment for everyone to feel like they’re in this together.”

The special made a virtue of every corona-associated necessity. The characters spoke on a Zoom-like communications app called Gryzzl, and the entire conceit of the show was a check-in phone tree among what Retta called “the giant family that Leslie [played by Amy Poehler] cultivated in that city hall with her parks department.”

That meant glimpses into their personal lives: Leslie in her office, Ron Swanson in a backwoods cabin, Tom Haverford with a virtual background of his missed trip to Bali. Retta’s background was actually her own fever-dream of a closet, featuring internally illuminated shelves of colorful, meticulously organized pairs of shoes. She looked so good in that closet, by the way, because she didn’t have to try to find a place to put a table lamp so that she didn’t look like a silhouette. Like the rest of us on video calls, “I had to be my own cameraman, gaffer, lighting electrician,” she says. The production team did send the cast “an entire mobile setup,” with lighting, microphones, a special iPhone, and even a setup video. “But I’m on my phone constantly, so I know my way around the iPhone.”

That connection among the actors is genuine, by the way, and Retta says it starts with series creator Michael Schurr. “Mike is very altruistic,” she says, “and he’s a sharer.” When NBC asked whether he’d like to produce a show, “he sent us a text, and he was like, ‘We’re all going through this, and this sucks, and it’s hard for people, and we know people love the show, so....’ ” He didn’t have a script yet, but he asked. “So of course everybody was like, yeah!” Schurr has said he heard back from the entire cast within forty-five minutes.

Retta doesn’t describe her online work experience as much different from yours. “Once I started doing it, we were shooting, we did the remote table read. I was shooting.” She was doing her job, though she did notice how quickly the connection among the actors returned.

But she says, the real thrill for her came from the response, which started even before the special was released. “A woman sent me a video of her two daughters, they were probably eight and six, and the father had shown them the video of Amy [Poehler] saying we were doing a special, and they started screaming, like so excited.” Since Parks streams on Netflix, it’s gained a whole new fan base: “This set of fans I never knew we would have, which are elementary-school kids.

“And everybody is basically clinging to Netflix during this quarantine and trying to get some form of respite from feeling like the world is so heavy.”

Parks shows the kind of community we all need right now. “It’s getting real ugly out there,” Retta says. “So I think we need a nice dose of what it looks like to be kind to one another.”—

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