"Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown" packs an emotional punch

Share this Post:
Image courtesy of Book-It Repertory Theatre
Image courtesy of Book-It Repertory Theatre

"Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown" is an audio drama by Gin Hammond, adapted from Tochi Onyebuchi's short story of the same name. It's told mostly from the perspectives of androids, whose bodies are manufactured but whose memories are borrowed. It deals with themes of mental illness, suicide, self-harm, and neurodivergent minds with an intensity carried by the experienced voices of Mandy Rose Nichols, Tim Gouran, Annette Toutonghi, Arlando Smith, Jesse Calixto, and Mia Morris.

There are two central characters. One is Cecile (Nichols), an android passing as human (whom she calls "redbloods") who works repairing other androids who have been damaged or destroyed, including some that have destroyed themselves. The other is Boxer (Tim Gouran), an android who ends up one of Cecile's patients after a nasty fight. Their scenes are interspersed with those of other androids as they each "self-destruct."

"Zen" was the first audio play I knowingly experienced. It's a bit like an audiobook or podcast, with narration and dialogue, but the similarities end there. It stands apart for its theatrical intent and use of audio, as a medium, to a fuller extent. A soundscape supports the words, creating a strong sense of place even as the setting changes — and with five androids used over 40 minutes, the perspective changes a lot.

These changes can be abrupt, but they're never jarring, at least not in a way that harms the work. Where an audiobook often embraces punctuation as something that should be felt, "Zen" uses changes in the soundscape, and changes in the voice actors, to shift perspectives on a dime from one character to another, even mid-sentence. It makes for one of the most deft forms of third-person-omniscient perspective I've experienced, such that it nears what could be called first-person-omniscient.

Tickets for "Zen" are available on the Book-It Repertory Theater's website (https://book-it.org/) for $20, or $30 for a class pass.