Sometimes, the most unassuming people can make the biggest impression.
In June 2004, actor and playwright Julia Mackey was in Normandy, France, for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Having attended ceremonies and walked the beaches, she happened upon a veteran from small-town Ontario, sitting on the bleachers by himself after the main ceremony had ended.
He told Mackey his name was Fred Rogers, and he had been a milkman for 40 years. He never had any children of his own, but for decades had been visiting schools to share his war experiences. He had been to Normandy dozens of times, he said, to pay respect to the guys who had never come home.
He, himself, lost a great deal in Normandy, he told Mackey.
At the age of 20 or 21, Rogers was in the artillery and landed on D-Day. He was given the task of moving the bodies of the infantry men off the beach so that the convoy could move up.
“He said, out of the blue — and I’ll never forget this — ‘After I finished doing that, I had this feeling like I had lost something, and I couldn’t think of what it was that I lost,’” Mackey told The Telegram. “It was eating at him, this feeling of having lost something. He was by himself, leaning up against a wall, taking in everything he had just witnessed, and he came to him what he had lost: he said to me, ‘I lost my childhood. I was longer a child; I was a man.’”
Mackey, who’s from Vancouver, had attended the D-Day ceremonies as part of her research for a play she was writing, inspired in part by a documentary on the Second World War she had seen years earlier. She interviewed dozens of veterans and made many discoveries of her own, but the story that unfolded for her came mostly from Rogers.
Her one-woman play “Jake’s Gift” first appeared with a workshop performance in B.C. in August 2006, then went on to feature at the Toronto Fringe Festival and the Victoria Fringe festival, where it won Best Drama, Best Solo Show, Best Female Performer and Best New Play. It was named Best of Fest at the 2008 Edmonton Fringe Festival and at the 2009 Winnipeg Fringe Festival, where it sold out its entire run.
Now, about 400 performances later, Mackey is touring this province with “Jake’s Gift.”
The play is centred around Jake, a Canadian Second World War veteran who returns to Normandy for the 60th anniversary celebrations. While revisiting the beach he landed on 60 years earlier, Jake meets Isabelle, a 10-year-old French girl who leads him to confront some long-ignored ghosts, including the war-time death of his oldest brother.
There are four roles in the play, and Mackey plays all of them.
“I never intended it to be a one-woman show,” she explained. “I had a very strong piece of what each of these characters sounded like, and Dirk (Van Stralen, director) and I worked on it and said, ‘Yeah, OK, let’s do it this way and see what happens.’ If you were to read the script, you would never know it’s a one-person show, because it’s very specifically four characters.”
Though it was challenging in the beginning, playing all the roles comes second nature to Mackey these days.
“Because the characters are in my body so much, they feel like individual people to me,” she explained. “Even though I’m up there by myself, I don’t feel like I’m up there by myself.”
Visiting Normandy and walking among the graves of young Canadian soldiers was a sobering, emotional and fulfilling experience, Mackey said, that gave her a new appreciation for the freedom we enjoy in this country.
She said she was particularly impressed by French children’s knowledge and awareness of the events of the war, and the importance their parents placed on passing down a legacy of remembrance.
“The amount of genuine thanks and understanding, even in kids as young as eight or nine years old, is amazing,” Mackey said. “You watch these little kids go up to the veterans and shake their hands and say, ‘Merci beaucoup,’ and you know they understand what they’re thanking them for.
“When I was a kid, growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I definitely was lucky enough to go to a school where remembrance day was a really big deal, but a lot of people I’ve met didn’t have that same kind of thing. I think because of the fact that we are in Afghanistan now and there are still soldiers dying all the time, there’s become this awareness that is much more prevalent. I think that also has to do with recognizing that a lot of the Second World War veterans are going fast now. I do think we’re getting better at educating the kids, but I do think we have a lot to learn from the French people as well.”
Although the play is a dramatic one, Mackey and Van Stralen, who is also her real-life partner, have included comedic elements as well, to lighten the mood in parts. It’s something audience members with a family connection to the war have told her they appreciated.
Mackey said she’s always honoured to meet veterans in the audience after her performances.
“Dirk calls them my band of 80-year-old boyfriends,” she joked. “I’ve met veterans from Afghanistan as well who are 10 years younger than me, who might come up to me after the show and say how much it meant to them. It just moves me so much when I get to chance to meet them. I still keep in touch with a lot of them, and I have a wonderful relationship with them and talk to them quite often.”
Fred Rogers never got to see the play he inspired, since he died in May 2006, before the script was completed. Ironically, he’s the only veteran Mackey interviewed who has passed on, and she was upset he never got to see the show. Still, she said, she feels he’s with her through the stories he helped her create.
“Jake’s Gift” will run at the LSPU tonight through Saturday, and then will tour the province until March 25, with stops in Gander, Stephenville, Corner Brook, Labrador West, Goose Bay, Grand Falls-Windsor, Eastport, Bonavista, Clarenville, Burin and Carbonear.
Mackey said she’s particularly excited to bring the play to this province.
“Many of the graves I saw (in Normandy) were from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and the amount of sacrifice and the amount of people from this area that volunteered was huge,” she explained. “Newfoundland wasn’t a part of Canada at that time, yet the sacrifice they made in both world wars was so great, it means so much for us to get to tour around the province.”
Tickets for the St. John’s performances of “Jake’s Gift” are $27 ($24 for students, seniors and artists) and can be bought at the LSPU Hall box office, by calling 753-4531, and online at www.rca.nf.ca.