Samuel Chris McCoy ’06 Addressing Social Issues Through Performing Arts
As an O’Dowd freshman, Samuel Chris McCoy ’06 was deeply moved by the drama department’s production of “The Laramie Project.”
“Seeing how well produced it was and experiencing the play’s political impact pushed me to get involved in theatre at O’Dowd,” he said.
McCoy later performed in Tartuffe, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and played a lead role in the musical Ragtime.
Today, McCoy, 26, is challenging others to advocate for a more just world through drama. A Peace Corps volunteer working as a teacher in a public high school in Nicaragua, McCoy wrote, directed and produced The Triumph of Jessica, which focuses on discrimination. (The full play and interview with the student actors can be viewed on McCoy’s blog: aglobalcitizen.tumblr.com). Developed from students’ dialogues and improvisations about the theme of discrimination, the play is inspired by the classic Nicaraguan text El Güegüense.
“After I asked the youth in my English Theatre Project group, most of whom are students in the U.S. embassy-sponsored Access English program, what problems they see in their community, they told me they wanted to discuss, more than anything, the problem of discrimination,” he said. “Since I have had experiences with discrimination, including recent instances based on my Egyptian heritage, I felt it was a topic I wanted to tackle as well. Discrimination is a damaging, foolish symptom of ignorance. In my mind, education and creative expression are the best ways to prevent and combat discrimination.”
Staged in December at a Catholic-founded youth center (Fabretto) in Nicaragua, the play received a standing ovation. “I was extremely proud of the student actors, who all stepped up to the plate by memorizing all their lines and staying in character. This was their first time acting in a play and they did an amazing job in a very short time frame. The time from our initial meetings and improvisations to curtain call was only two months!” he said.
As far as McCoy knows, this is the first time an original theatre production has been developed and performed by youth in Nicaragua. “I’m sure that it is the first original play to be presented both in English and in Spanish in this country. The youth feel empowered. They feel more confident in their public speaking abilities and in their English communication skills,” he said.
McCoy said his main goals with this project were: to inspire the youth who participated, and all the community members who attended, to express themselves through the powerful medium of theatre; to encourage people to become bilingual in a globalized world; and to stir them to take a stand against discrimination in their lives.
Broadening His Horizons
McCoy attended the University of California, San Diego, where he majored in political science and minored in theatre and ethnic studies. He also studied abroad for a year, focusing on political science, theatre and Arabic at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.
After graduating from UCSD, McCoy worked as a volunteer political writer with Youth Radio in Oakland. Before joining the Peace Corps, he served as a communications associate for several Bay Area nonprofits through the domestic version of the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps VISTA. “As a VISTA, I spearheaded the social media outreach of a nonprofit that helps youth from low-income families get into college, as well as for a nonprofit that works with youth from homeless families in San Francisco. I felt the need to serve youth in my community before heading off to serve overseas,” he said.
McCoy had long dreamed of serving in the Peace Corps. “Shortly after the tragic attacks of 9/11, my English teacher asked our 8th grade class to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I drew a picture of myself smiling in a suit equipped with a Peace Corps pin, and wrote that I dreamt of being a community leader and public figure, helping people in the U.S. and around the world,” he said.
He began his Peace Corps service in November 2013, after completing three months of language, culture and teacher-related training. “I like that Peace Corps service allows me to do many things I am passionate about at once – serve my country, help people from disadvantaged circumstances, learn about other languages and cultures by living abroad, and to be creative and start projects of my own design and initiative,” he said.
His primary responsibility this past school year was to co-teach, along with Nicaraguan English teachers, public high school English classes of around 50-plus students, as well as give workshops and trainings to English teachers around the country. McCoy’s first time in Central America was as a participant in the two-week Costa Rica ecology trip through Bishop O’Dowd’s science department and Ecology Project International as a sophomore.
McCoy said that the most difficult thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer this past year has been the challenging work environment – working in an under-resourced school with overcrowded classrooms and with youth who are dealing with many other issues outside of the class.
However, the rewards are many. “I was blown away by the amount of love and gratitude I received from my students on my birthday this year. My 150 graduating high school students filled three classrooms with balloons, confetti, piñatas, cake and music and heaped thoughtful gifts on me to give me the best birthday celebration I have ever had. Just the fact that they appreciated all that I had done for them over the past year was the best reward I could ever ask for as a teacher,” he said.
O’Dowd Experience Continues to Influence
McCoy said that O’Dowd equipped him with the tools to apply technique to talent in order to make a difference and move the crowd.
“I think art, and specifically theatre, plays an important role in society by serving as an outlet for expression and commentary on important social themes. O’Dowd’s Drama Department does not hesitate in choosing edgy, sometimes politically-charged plays that challenge students and audiences to think differently and pose critical questions about society.
“I am a socially conscious person who has learned that there comes a point where it is not only ideal but essential to take a stand and speak up instead of sitting on the sidelines and keeping quiet in the face of adversity. Otherwise, nothing is going to change. My education, in addition to my theatrical training and participation in other clubs such as the Junior State of America at O’Dowd, helped prepare me to become a critical thinker and strong public speaker. These important skills are required to be a leader in taking a stand against injustice,” he said.
McCoy says that since his O’Dowd education was made possible by generous scholarships from the school, he feels a special responsibility to give back. “I want to pay it forward and pass on what I’ve learned by working with youth who come from similarly disadvantaged socio-economic circumstances as my own,” he said.
McCoy says he really enjoys making a positive difference in the lives of young people as a teacher. “I see myself continuing teaching, even if it is only as a volunteer, regardless of whichever line of work I pursue,” he said.
“After completing my two-year commitment with the Peace Corps, I would like to continue with public service as well as staying involved in performance arts and politics, in addition to learning languages and travelling the world. I fully subscribe to the belief that we should be the change we wish to see in the world,” McCoy added.