The role that changed It All: Vain Colby’s Journey Into Playwriting

Last updated: August 30, 2021

For Vain Colby, legendary playwright from southern West Virginia, one role changed it all. 

In third or fourth grade, Colby’s class was practicing for its upcoming skit. Colby had missed audition day, and he was left without a part. But a week before the performance, the lead character dropped out. 

“Before I could even think about it, I stood up and said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Colby says. Last-minute rehearsals were a whirlwind, yet he still knows the lyrics. “I just remember when it was over and I took my bow, you would’ve thought they were giving me an Academy Award or something. The applause just did something to me.”

In that moment, he says, he “caught the bug.” 

In the years that followed, Colby turned his focus to scripting, writing seven plays that were later performed in regional community theaters. In 2000, his friend Skip Crane asked him to play the part of an African American sheriff in an upcoming performance. It was a chance to help his friend and bring diversity to the stage, so he agreed. The rest, he says, is history. 

Growing up in a rural coal community, Colby says, there were few avenues through which one could explore the arts. So when he, Crane, Jim Jenks, and Thomas Lester branched out in 2010 to form the traveling troupe 4 PALS, he wanted to ensure that it was an inclusive space where everyone could participate.

“We’re tackling inclusion on two different fronts: On one front, we’re writing plays that involve African Americans,” he says. As an African American man, he feels that giving the community the chance to see a diverse cast is vital. 

On the other front, 4 PALS places a strong emphasis on accessibility. Each spring, the company hosts a theater festival for both Virginias where students of all ages and backgrounds come together to learn and bond over their mutual love of the arts. Long after the festival ends, the students’ friendships persist. It’s something Colby considers invaluable. 

“I’m so proud to get the kids involved and the African American community involved,” he says. “I’m proud to be doing shows that teach people about each other.” 

Two decades into playwriting, there’s no sign of things slowing down. Colby says his 4 PALS crew balances three to four plays per year. In the background, he’s plotting his latest play. It’s a murder mystery—the first he’s attempted. “I don’t want to be known as the person with the same formula in every show. I’m trying to diversify,” he says. 

Juggling so many performances and plays could be tiring. But that’s not the case for Colby. With each show, he’s introducing others to the world of performing arts and instilling an appreciation for theater, which makes each show a priceless experience. For some attendees, he says, his plays may be the first they’ve ever seen. He recalls one heartfelt comment vividly: “Once after a show, someone said to me and Skip, ‘This play left me wanting to be a better person.’” 

Colby’s latest play, Hearts of Coal, will be presented February 27–29 at the Bluefield Arts Center and March 20–21 at the Chuck Mathena Center in Princeton. Tickets for the dinner theater are $35 each and must be reserved by calling 304.589.0339. Tickets for the Princeton performances will be $20.