Mackey performs Jake’s Gift at Juno Beach
There were soldiers from this area storming the Nazi machine guns and artillery at Juno Beach.
Now, 75 years later after they broke through the hard lines of tyranny, it is their stories that continue to fight for freedom.
One of the most compelling stories of them all, a modern classic, and eternal ode to the Second World War is the play Jake’s Gift. During this period of mourning and gratitude marking 75 years since D-Day, the writer-actor behind Jake’s Gift is herself at Juno Beach to perform this treasured Canadian theatre on the precise spot where Canadian soldiers broke over the rise of French land on their way to liberate the world from the Nazi terror.
Julia Mackey and her husband Dirk Van Stralen, the play’s director, have performed there before, but this time there is an added sense of importance, with the world’s observance of the anniversary. Mackey will stage the play six times (four in French, two in English) in the Normandy region, and she will also be the intermediary between children in the Juno Beach area and children in the Cariboo. She is delivering 75 hand-decorated cards addressed to soldiers who are buried in the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery where so many Canadian soldiers are interred after making the ultimate sacrifice while storming the beach in the D-Day counterassault, and in the following push to victory in Europe. There are 2,048 graves there. All but four are Canadian.
This graveyard and others like it are cared for and deeply meaningful to the people of those French communities first liberated in that catastrophic invasion.
The mayor of one such community – Jean Luc Guillourad of Colomby-Anguerny – spotted a card of thanks written by a student from Ontario and placed on one of the grave markers.
It sparked an idea to have French and Canadian children do 75 cards of their own – one for each year since D-Day – and place them around the cemetery.
“It was such a beautiful idea, so moving of him to think of this. It’ll be wonderful to meet the students in advance and then we will be doing a performance in Anguerny,” said Mackey. “They have 75 students in their school, and we reached out to Red Bluff and Wells elementary schools to do the 75 from here.”
Each card had a message of thanks written personally from the student, and some artwork. The local teachers who facilitated were Danette Boucher, Linda Joyce and Teresa Beaven-McCart.
Guillourad sought out Mackey for this exchange because he had seen Jake’s Gift performed in Normandy on a previous occasion, and he knew the title character, Jake, had a brother named Chester buried in Bény-sur-Mer.
“We have had a very moving experience so far,” said Mackey, after attending the D-Day anniversary events and completing some of the performances on their Juno Beach sojourn.
“We had an evening French show and an English matinee in the exact locale of the play – right across the street from (the child character) Isabelle’s house in the play. It was so incredible to perform there. That house (now known as the Queens Own Rifles House) will be 100 feet from where I’ll be performing, and I’ll be able to see it from the stage.”
Mackey has experienced a wide range of emotions based on the response of audience members – in Prince George alone that has been a Lieutenant Governor, many veterans, school kids, Theatre Northwest crowds, and more – and sometimes it seems the play has a streak of providence to it. Mackey was bowled over when she discovered that the people with whom she had to make arrangements for the Juno Beach Centre (the Canadian organization dedicated to the DDay memorial and museum in Normandy) were based in Burlington, Ontario. Burlington, by remarkable coincidence, plays a notable part in the play.
“I am so thrilled to be going back there, and this new relationship with the students just makes it so special,” said Mackey.
She and Van Stralen attended a ceremony on Friday in the Juno Beach area at which an elementary school there was renamed Louis Valmount Roy after a fallen D-Day soldier. They also have been to Rue Bill Ross, named for a Canadian soldier who fought valiantly to liberate Anguerny, so the municipality named the road after him.
Mackey and Van Stralen were present to another impactful treat, the presence of so many surviving Canadian veterans of the DDay campaign who travelled to Normandy for these special ceremonies.
“People ask me when are you not going to do this play anymore, and yes, I will definitely move on to other things, but I’m 51 and this character and this play have been a part of one third of my life,” said Mackey.
“I hope it is always a part of my life as long as I’m physically able to do it. When you think about how you want experiences to come into your life, and how you want life to go – this is it.”
The events of war are over in a flash, and they are so epic in scope and context that they cannot be reproduced in a dimensional way. The closest representations come in the form of art. The plaques, statues, poems, songs and plays like Jake’s Gift are how the heroics of D-Day are passed on to future generations.
Julia Mackey, still in costume from performing Jake’s Gift, meets with audience member David Leon Teacher, a decorated D-Day veteran and author of the memoir Beyond My Wildest Dreams. They met at Juno Beach ceremonies this week in Normandy where Mackey performed her play a number of times in both French and English.