Mei is on a mission. Rootless, unsure of the parts that make her whole, she beds as many Asian men as possible to discover what type of Asian she really is.

From its neon-lit set to the blaring contemporary soundtrack, Orientation's confident, brash exterior hides a nerdy insecurity: Who are we? What makes us real? Can we ever be complete if we don't know who to love?

Playwright and director Chye-Ling Huang's second full-length stage work is a coming-of-age for Asian theatre. Bluntly sexy, chock-full of contemporary name-drops and pop-culture references, it's both a bold assertion of Asian women as sex sirens and a renunciation.

Natasha Daniel as Mei, a biracial Chinese woman, tasks the Everyman (Kyle Chuen) with finding her sexual partners. He obliges by becoming every Asian sexual fantasy she can summon with a flick of her fingers. Chuen and Daniel are assured, physical actors; Chuen's mimicry of Asian celebs draws laughs for its accuracy.

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But this is where Orientation first splits into complexity: for Chuen, who is also biracial, passes as white – and introduces himself as the actor who can play any and all Asians in yellowface. For those of Asian background in the audience, this was the point at which they started experiencing the play differently.

Mei is a flawed character, obsessed with race and sex. Her superficiality grates when she refuses to see people for who they are – individuals, each with a story - instead of tired tropes. And by presenting this initially without challenge, Huang makes the audience do the hard work.

Bi-racial Mei (Natasha Daniel) uses sexual liaisons to try to understand what type of Asian she is.
Bi-racial Mei (Natasha Daniel) uses sexual liaisons to try to understand what type of Asian she is.

Mei soon moves on to 'real men': ripped Filipino body builder Kace (Marwin Silerio), sensitive Indian filmmaker Dhruv (Mayen Mehta) and cute Chinese student Thomas (Eugene Yao).

A second landmark: this may be the first time in New Zealand that different Asian ethnicities have stood together as main characters.

Amid the baring of flesh, the couplings expose every tired prejudice: "You're so exotic," Mei gushes; she recoils when she's told, "You're attractive… for an Asian."

Things get surreal when a Dragon and some White Bread (puppets superbly crafted by Paul Lewis) show up to spout historical monologues about the largely tragic history of Asians in Aotearoa.

While this device felt disruptive, the puppets – as representations of parental, ancestral wisdom – eventually hold the key to Mei's self-realisation. It's a raw, uncomfortable and ultimately moving work showcasing talents who deserve more time on our stages.

What: Orientation - Q Matchbox season
Where & when: Loft at Q Theatre, until Saturday, September 15
Reviewed by: Renee Liang