Mackey per­forms Jake’s Gift at Juno Beach

The Prince George Citizen - - Local - Frank PEEBLES Ci­ti­zen staff fpee­[email protected]­i­t­i­

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.

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