Cast on the wrong side of the tracks

Paulette Randall used to hawk bathroom goods around Brixton. Now she's cleaning up as our leading black woman director. By Roy Bartholomew
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August Wilson, the double Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who anchors each of his plays in a different decade this century, calls Two Trains Running his "Sixties drama". For Paulette Randall, however, director of its British premiere staging, there is a wrenching topicality about the issues raised in the piece: feelings of aimlessness, alienation and injustice, as experienced by America's black underclass, echo down the years.

"The characters in the play talk about their lives in the 1960s," she observes, "but if you were to change the language slightly, they could be talking about how people live today."

Wilson sets the play in a Pittsburgh diner where, in the wake of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King's assassination, a group of disaffected but ruminative African-Americans attempt self-betterment via gambling, mysticism, commerce and the supernatural.

The date is 1969 but, Randall believes, there is an aura of timelessness about the play which makes it equally pertinent to present-day Black America. "On the one hand that air of perpetuity is depressing, because you realise nothing's changed really - in terms of being black and the feeling that there are still few opportunities to map out a future for yourself. On the other hand, you start to think that maybe, maybe there is something to be got from this... People must learn how to stop that kind of history repeating itself, and fast."

Still only 33, but with a confident, almost imposing air, Randall is the country's leading young black director. After honing her skills at the Royal Court 10 years ago under Max Stafford-Clark, her career has branched out impressively into radio and television. She produced the British Comedy Award-winning TV sitcom Desmond's for Channel 4, worked on the original fringe production of Five Guys Named Moe and directed Lenny Henry's Loud! tour, as well as a rash of award-winning stage productions including August Wilson's The Piano Lesson and Stephen Carter's Pecong at the Tricycle and Winsome Pinnock's Leave Taking at the National Theatre.

Not bad going for a former amateur shot-putter who failed A-level drama and who is still learning to love Shakespeare. "I had a terrible introduction to Shakespeare," Randall confesses. "And I'm probably still suffering because of it!"

As a teenager, she attended Dick Sheppard Secondary, a south London problem school in Tulse Hill. "I remember a lecturer coming to teach the class - a mono player in one hand and a box-set of Shakespeare LPs in the other. After putting a record on the turntable, the teacher turned and said, 'For a double-period of English you are now going to sit, listen to Shakespeare, learn and enjoy.' For two hours I sat there trying to enjoy. In the end I couldn't. And for many years, really, I must tell you, I hardly ever tried to." Nowadays, of course, that's all changed - although, she adds severely, some Shakespeare productions still remind her of that early experience.

On leaving school, she took a variety of jobs, including stints as both a waitress and a market-trader. lt was during her unlikely career in sales that Randall came across a newspaper advertisement inviting applications for a one-off Community Theatre Arts course. "At the time I was a bathroom requisites salesperson," she laughs. "Someone showed me this ad and I thought, 'This sounds like fun', so I applied."

Among her visiting tutors at Rose Bruford College was Talawa Theatre's founding mother, Yvonne Brewster - a reassuring and morale-boosting presence, Randall recalls.

At first, she had ambitions as a playwright, but began to develop an interest in directing after she watched Danny Boyle rehearse Fishing, a piece she had herself written as part of the Rose Bruford course. "I was fascinated. I decided there and then - that's what I want to do."

Fishing also introduced her to the scorn of the critics. The Evening Standard's Nicholas de Jongh, especially, showed no remorse. "He called it 'Paulette's playlet'," she recalls, still looking crestfallen. "I kept thinking: 'Playlet! What does he mean playlet? It's my play!' But that night he was in a foul mood. He hated the the play, the seating, the bar... everything."

Not long after, Randall applied for and won an Arts Council bursary to train as a director under Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court. Ten years on, she can count herself among that rare breed - directors who are women and who are consistently in work.

"And she's good," confirms Jude Kelly, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. "Certainly, from what I know of her, she is one of the leading directors around at the moment." Philip Hedley, who runs the Theatre Royal Stratford East, has worked with Randall for years. "What I like about her is that she does things with style, verve and dash. She is a very rare combination of talents."

In Two Trains Running, August Wilson's black people, denied the American Dream by business, union and civic corruption, try desperately to negotiate the ever-increasing odds against a successful and meaningful life. In the centre of this racially polarised mix, Memphis, the proud self-made man, preaches self-interest, self-reliance and plain hard work. "Freedom," he says, "is heavy. You got to put your shoulder to freedom... and hope your back hold up. And if you're looking around for justice... ain't no justice."

Wilson's themes - freedom, alienation, the thirst for justice and success - strike a heavy chord in Randall's heart. "Yes, as a Black Briton, I do often feel alienated from the mainstream - as if, well, I don't truly belong..."

For many, feelings of being edged to the margin can have a debilitating effect, inducing malaise or madness. It's a theme taken up by Wilson and graphically realised in Two Trains Running. Yet, for Paulette Randall - born black, working-class and female in Brixton - it's all a question of attitude to the disadvantages that her birthright automatically conferred.

Like Wilson's striving figures, her victory, albeit quietly understated, is a remarkable one. It can't have been easy to go from street-hawking bathroom requisites around Brixton to directing a play at the National.

"Looking back, I suppose it hasn't been all plain sailing. But then I didn't think how difficult it was at the time. I'm that sort of person: if I really want something, I'll reach for it somehow, and I won't think of the obstacles necessarily. I'll try and get round them because they are in the way..."

n 'Two Trains Running': previews from tomorow, opens Monday, at the Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6. Booking: 0171-328 1000