ALEC MAPA does a flawless Juanita Hall. Really.

For those of you who didn't spend your youth obsessing about such things, Hall was an African American singer and actress whose most famous role was as the Polynesian sage known as Bloody Mary in the 1958 film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. Hollywood rationale being what it was--and often still is--she was then absurdly cast in another R&H film, Flower Drum Song. As a Chinese woman.

I'm telling you all this because when Mapa impersonates Hall lapsing in her awkward Flower Drum accent, it's indicative of everything that works so wonderfully in I Remember Mapa, his solo performance piece currently running in its Seattle debut at the Northwest Asian American Theater. The Hall joke is nothing more than a hysterical passing bit that just happens to resonate and speak about something larger. Mapa's show touches on issues of race and pride--he's gay and Filipino--yet isn't about either one of those things, which conversely makes whatever statements he does have that much stronger. Poor Juanita had me laughing days later.

"Yeah, that's the highlight of the show. After that we should just bring the curtain down," Mapa teases me, and even over the phone I can see him rolling his eyes before going into his impersonation of a thoughtless audience member. "'The rest? Poor you. Blah, blah, blah. Big deal. So you were unemployed; I'm sorry everybody died on you and you lost all your money. Make us laugh.'"

There is a lot to laugh about in Mapa's piece despite the fact that his subject matter isn't all that funny. He went from rags to riches and then... well, you'll see. After his undergrad stint at NYU, the actor made a name for himself taking over for Tony-winner B. D. Wong in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway powerhouse M. Butterfly. David Henry Hwang's celebrated play, about a petite Asian man who disguises his gender from a white lover for years before discovery, initially didn't appeal to Mapa (In his solo piece he recalls thinking, "What's the big deal? I'm from San Francisco. This kind of thing happens on the bus."). But he agreed to understudy (another priceless tale), and eventually conquered Broadway before all hell broke loose in his life. Death, grievous unemployment, and professional humiliation all came into play and somehow didn't bring the actor down--the same courtesy Mapa extends to his audience. As in God Said Ha!, Julia Sweeney's witty, uplifting piece about cancer and familial grief (a show Mapa says he admires), I Remember Mapa successfully makes painfully intimate discoveries feel inspiringly universal by using hair-trigger comic timing.

"If you get up there and you're really preachy, [no one will] listen to it anymore," he says. "You can get away with two minutes of your philosophy if you make them laugh for 45. You can kind of sneak that in there, but I always feel like you gotta earn that. And the whole format of a one-person show is nervy. I think it's asking a lot of any audience to listen to anybody talk for an hour. So just deliver the goods."

He's able to laugh about everything now, even if the concept of going from Broadway to a pizza kitchen to various other depressing jobs understandably gave him pause at one time. After finally achieving another success with a tailor-made role in Chay Yew's A Language of Their Own (playwright/director Yew also helms I Remember Mapa), he spent some time reflecting on everything that had happened.

"I was 32 and thinking, 'What if this is it?,'" he explains. "The answer came up that I'd probably do some silly cabaret show or stand-up act about what it was like to have been an actor. And I started writing those things down, and the more ridiculous stories were the really true ones, the stuff that really did happen to me. And then I started talking about it more and more, and it was kind of a healing thing for me because the more I could talk about the difficult things out loud, the more they were really over."

Refreshingly confident without any overweening pretense, Mapa freely labels his shows "so corny and so middle-class and so accessible," while understanding that those are the very qualities that make his work shine. He knows he's achieved a certain level of political commentary simply by being who he is without any affectations.

"The fact that I'm gay and I'm Asian and I'm an actor makes me immediately political whether I want it to or not, because that's all about creating a space for myself in an industry that doesn't have any space for me," he says. "That's what the show's about. It's a basic story. Every gay child grows up feeling like their sexuality or their differences are liabilities. Then those experiences shape you, and then as you get older and you grow up you find that those liabilities turn out to be assets. Those things are what made you strong."

I suppose the oral history in I Remember Mapa is a hair's-breadth away from self-congratulation, what with its litany of praises and standing ovations for an actor still unfamiliar to most people, but it's all related on the level of an intensely personal triumph. The highs are simply related with the same kind of self-awareness that is brought to bear upon the lows. Every hard-won victory is matched with an equally crucial defeat. It's the resilience, not the accolades, that remains vital and memorable. Alec Mapa, like anybody else, is somebody who had goals for himself and came to understand a slightly different definition of success.

"It's hard in L.A., because it's not people's jobs to have any imagination. I used to complain about that," he says. "You know what? That's not their job. Their job is to get somebody on the set tomorrow who can play the part. And a lot of people kind of languish in this town because they're waiting around thinking, 'Nobody gets me. I'm a genius and nobody can see that.' Well, you know what? You have to demonstrate that all the time, and the thing is--that never ends. Because once you've done that, you have to constantly remind people. It doesn't end."

I Remember Mapa, Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Avenue S., 340-1049, $9-15, through Feb 20.