Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre has opened its 32nd season with the audio play “Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown.” The play features a small cast of actors in an adaptation of the story by Tochi Onyebuchi. The show mostly hinges on two characters: Cecile, voiced by Mandy Rose Nichols, and the Boxer, voiced by Tim Gouran.
Cecile is an android disguised as a “red blood,” aka a human, who repairs other androids. One frequent visitor in particular, the Boxer, catches her interest with the strength of his memories despite the damage he consistently takes from his matches. Cecile is invested in her work but doesn’t necessarily understand the experiences of humans around her. Nichols does a fantastic job of portraying Cecile as collected and curious — a direct juxtaposition to the Boxer, who lives in the moment and for the thrill of the match.
In the beginning, the narrative flings between the different voices of the actors, and it may take a while for the listener to adjust, especially if they are used to the steady monotony of podcasts and audiobooks. The pacing and narrative pulls you in, keeping the listener engaged and reconnecting old threads in the thrilling conclusion.
“Zen” posits a question that’s very familiar to those who enjoy science fiction: What makes us who we are? Cecile considers the parts that make up different androids the same way the Boxer contemplates the memories he’s trying to run from. Each time he goes offline from a harsh blow in the boxing ring, he loses bits of memories he isn’t even sure are real.
Gouran delivers compelling monologues as the Boxer, interjected by a stellar performance from his opponent, Boxer #2, portrayed by Arlando Smith. Smith has a visceral quality to his delivery that gives each scene an extra dimension and managed to completely grip me. Each line is like a one-two punch, answering Gouran with passion.
The atmospheric sounds create a full world as well. From the sterile echoes of Cecile’s labs to the controlled chaos of the boxing matches, it is easy to see that the world androids inhabit is just as rich as their red blood counterparts. This can be attributed to the sound design team and audio engineers, who paid attention to detail, making sure nothing overwhelmed the voices speaking.
In the show, humans view the androids as something to be fixed — a prevalent theme that rings true as an allegory for being disabled or neurodivergent. Cecile’s colleagues whisper about her, wondering if she is autistic even before they know her status. When the Boxer is being repaired, they upgrade his limbs without consent to make him stronger and faster.
Although this play is futuristic sci-fi, similar situations happen today. The hearing aids I used as a five year old have constantly been engineered to more powerful heights. Cochlear implants have advanced, and new accessibility equipment is created. For children born outside the mold, parents may be pressured to make snap decisions regarding “upgrading” them. Onyebuchi poses the question for us instead: What if we are fine the way we are?
“Zen” measures the society against those who feel pressured to change themselves since society won’t adapt and be accessible to them. There is nothing inherently wrong with Cecile or the Boxer other than not falling within the world’s expectations. The beatdown ends up not being the physical punches that the Boxer endures, but the world pressuring them to conform where they cannot. Even well-meaning allies like Brianne, portrayed by Annette Toutonghi, don’t fully understand the richness of Cecile’s existence.
“Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown” is a masterful work, and the audio play format delivers the message both efficiently and artistically. Tochi Onyebuchi’s story, as presented by Book-It, explores the richness of inner lives amongst those who are deemed incomplete.
Leinani Lucas enjoys reading, writing, and exploring the Pacific Northwest and can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas.
Read more of the Dec. 15-21, 2021 issue.