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Cultural memory and circular time in Suzan-Lori Parks's betting on the dust commander.

On the surface Suzan-Lori Parks's early play Betting on the Dust Commander (1987) is reminiscent of absurdist senex comedies such as Beckett's Endgame, Albee's Counting the Ways, or Tennessee Williams's Lifeboat Drill, but without their complexity. In fact, reviewers have dismissed Parks's drama as "an endless loop of silliness" (Chad Jones, "Chan's 'Bones' Trumps Parks," San Francisco Examiner [August 15, 2008]) about a "married couple sinking into an abyss of habit and stale recollection"

(Stephen Holden, "Theatre in Review," "Arts," New York Times [June 26, 1991]). Dust Commander (in The America Play and Other Works [NY Theatre Communications Group, 1995]) revolves around Mare and Lucius (Luki), married for 110 years, who go through a series of rituals centered on a race horse named Dust Commander responsible for bringing them together, providing the down payment on their house, and dominating their relationship. Each character comically sports an appropriate racetrack name. Though Commander's victory has long since passed, Luki goes to the track each day, wears memorable Bermuda shorts ("They wash and wear. Washed em in the bath. Been worn" [82]), and carries a "clippin" of himself in the paper the day the horse won. Similarly, Mare recalls the tip she gave Luki about Commander winning and the "plastic flowers" used at their wedding because of Luki's "scratchity throat" (75). Amid their talk about the famous racehorse, the couple quibbles about furniture, Mare's eyelashes put the "wrong-side," and effective ways to blow a nose, a Parksian medley of ludic topics.

Yet Parks's one-act play is far more intricate than these oldsters' antics would suggest. Anticipating her later multi-layered, fabulist works, Dust Commander destabilizes the way a naturalistic theatre conceives of and represents time, history, and memory through linear plots that lead to irrevocable climaxes. Departing from such models, Parks employs in Commander and elsewhere in canon a pattern of "Rep & Rev" (repetition and revision) characterizing jazz and other forms of art that are an integral part of the African and African American tradition ("Elements of Style," America, 10). This pattern is not static or normative but, rather, alive with the spirit of ever-recurring African rituals and their "literal incorporation of the past" ("Elements" 10). The representation of time and memory, which constitute ancestral history in Commander, reinforce Parks's belief that "History is time that won't quit" ("Elements" 15), or, as she speculates, "Time has a circular shape" ("Elements" 10). As Luki declares, there is to be a "Special Memorial Race 3:10. Time dont change" (80). Parks's circular sense of time, never quitting or ending, is thus conveyed through the couple's memories about Commander, repeating and making revisions as the play races by. History is also cyclical in Parks's The American Play, and so it becomes imminently possible to replay and change historical events.

Structurally, Commander goes through a "Rep & Rev" cycle. Divided into three sections A, B, and C, A is a mirror image (dialogue repeated verbatim) of the ending of the play in C, while the first half of section B (pages 76-83) is repeated in the last half (pages 83-89). There is no break in dialogue, no stage direction on page 83, to indicate that audiences are going to hear, re-witness, the same words from the first part of this section again. The two smaller sections, A and C, telling of the couple's wedding day, flank section B as if Parks turned the play into a racetrack of memories. The "Rev" (or revision) occurs when the couple corrects each other about how these events apply to their lives. Parks aptly uses a quotation from Gertrude Stein, as brilliantly iconoclastic as she is, for the epigraph: "continuous repeating . . . is a way of realizing everything" (75). Through the repetitions in Commander, Parks honors African oral traditions where the words and the spirit of the teller (Luki, Mare as well as Parks) "stay with us" ("Elements" 10).

Not surprisingly, then, Commander privileges the circular, the cyclical. Lucius watches "the same horses same track same ellipse same [sic]" (77). The track becomes a sanctified place where "They know me. They remember me" (77). He refers to this place as his "Church date" (78) or "Churchhill," as if it were a shrine to past glories. At the track, Commander (the name of the 1970 Kentucky Derby winner) wears "golden silks" like an angel. Untuned to Lucius's reveries, Mare scoffs, "You going? You going tuh watch her run? You go everyday I spose you be and theyre offing it today. Today especially cause Dust Commanders running. Dont wanna be late for that one. Uh regular glue factory resurrection. Better be off, Luki" (80). But Commander's circling the track is a sign of eternal life for Luki, unlike Mare's "budgie" that dies and is put in a plastic bag. Even so, the bird's flight pattern symbolizes the quest for life because when it "Usta fly around the house ... [it would go] Round n around round n around looking for the way out" (80). Lucius's "offing" at the track includes another circular signifier--the coins he bets on Commander: "I'll put some money on her. Not too much now just a bit. For remembrance sake ... 35 cents just like thuh first time. I put uh quarter and uh dime. No it was three dimes and uh nickel-seven nickels--thirty-five cents most likely" (81). No matter how Luki calculates the amount of his bet, it is always rounded off to the same amount, another instance of "Rep & Rev."

The most important signifier in Commander, though, is dust, rich in the symbolic, recurring multiplicities of cultural memory and representation. Time is dust and dust is time in the cyclical history of the couple's relationship. Telling time is tantamount to coming to terms with dust. Inevitably in Commander, dust is associated with breathing, with life. Luki and Mare repeat, over and over, their problems with "noses," "snots," "throats" all because of "lurking dust" (79). Parks even creates a nasopharyngeal word "ssnuch," or a "snort" accompanying "sneezing" ("Elements" 17). Fighting dust, Mare complains that it is everywhere in their house. She has to "crop" the furniture and complains that even the "Icebox needs defrostin ... Icecubes dusty. Frosty dusty..." (81). But Lucius teaches her a different view of dust, or time, one that again expresses the circularity defining his existence through the Rep and Rev pattern of the play. He informs Mare that""Dust is little bits of dirt ... Little bits of dirt. Separate dirties that--that--fuzzicate themselves together to make dusts. Each little bit and you smearing em into the paintjob. You gotta blot em ou"" (79-80). Round-shaped blots are far more mythically compatible with Luki's circular universe than Mare's streaks. Parks's neologism-"fuzzicate"--is onomatopoeically and ontologically on target; it is a word visualizing and eschewing fuzzy linear residue while typifying the obfuscating noncompliance on the part of Luki's smear-prone mate. Yet, as Parks stresses, Luki and Mare will live with and because of dust. Ironically allergic to it, Luki and Mare nonetheless base their lives and sense of history on dust. After all, Lucius met Mare while she was working as a waitress at the track and dusting his table. As she remembers, he "laughed at [my nose]... You sneezed--snucch--your hunch was the dust. Dust Commanders running today and you sniffed ... by the nose she'll win, I Said ... I called it" (79). Parks's comic parable on dust translates into a crucial statement about how we look at time, relationships, and history. Like the legendary horse in the title, a dust commander wins again and again in the race for life.

Philip C. Kolin, University of Southern Mississippi
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Author:Kolin, Philip C.
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
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