"The line between those who leave home and make it, and those who don't," wrote Tennessee Williams, "is often no wider than a piece of twine." I didn't quote Williams when I caught up with Francois Battiste backstage this week for a dressing-room interview, but I did ask him why his Broke-ologycharacter, Ennis, and that played by Alano Miller, Malcolm, have ended up in such different places: the former has stayed in Kansas City and has a wife and a baby on the way, the latter has university degrees from the University of Connecticut and is itching to seek a profession.
"It's about the choices that people make," Battiste explained. "It certainly isn't about any difference in intelligence between them." The actor's explanation - choices - is one invoked by not only American writers like Williams but also present-day novelists and intellectuals like Michael Eric Dyson and John Edgar Wideman to explain why they prospered while their brothers ended up with more broken lives - much more broken, it must be added, than Ennis's in Broke-ology.
"I'm aware of what those guys are talking about when they talk about their brothers," Battiste said. "In fact," he continues, referring to a Tracey Scott Wilson he did last season at the Public Theater and for which he won an Obie award, "when I did The Good Negro I met Michael Eric Dyson and got an exposure to his way of thinking."
Expanding on the fate-of-brothers theme, Battiste said, "I think that Nathan has written Broke-ology in such a way that you don't feel that my character is any less intelligent than Alano's. There was this audience member at Williamstown" - where Broke-ology was done in 2008 - "who didn't seem to agree. After seeing the play, she said to me, 'Your character was too intelligent for the story.' But you don't have to have college degrees to be intelligent. Just because you don't have a master's degree doesn't mean you might not read the New York Times."
The list of Battiste's own degrees -- from Illinois State University (he's from Chicago), Oxford, and Juilliard - might suggest that he and his Broke-ologycharacter don't overlap. Not so. "Some of my friends who've come to see the show," Battiste comments, "have said: 'Ennis is like you.' I guess what they mean is that, like Ennis, I'm competitive, like to have fun, and, I hope, have deep reservoirs of love. I'm not REALLY Ennis. But I have to locate myself in the character. Actors who play Hamlet don't have lives like Hamlet's. But they have to find the Hamlet within themselves."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.