Dallas — Square-shouldered and outfitted in a suit and tie, Cody Clark steps onto the stage at Dallas Solo Fest, introducing himself as a Kentucky native and welcoming his audience with remarks about how much he’s enjoying visiting Dallas.
The young magician adjusts his wire-rimmed glasses and gets right down to business with a clever Rubik’s Cube trick and a “social justice” card game with the audience. Engaging and articulate, he gets quick applause when he rolls a gold coin across his knuckles and makes it vanish in thin air!
Clark is an astute sleight-of-hand man and fun to watch, but the real focus of his show, A Different Way of Thinking, is how his childhood discovery of stage magic gave him the confidence to cope with autism.
He tells us he was diagnosed at 15 months as autistic, when his parents thought he might be deaf and took him to the doctor. His parents were told their young son would always need to be helped to dress himself, need to be cared for in an institution, and would never learn to love. “Of course, that’s upsetting,” he says, his voice cracking slightly.
His magic tricks are geared to his autobiographical story. When he speedily pulls two jumbled Rubik’s Cubes together to show a single gleaming white surface, he smiles at the applause, then says, “Because I’m autistic, my mind strives to bring order to chaos.” A shredded heart falls to the floor as he tells of an ill-fated friendship with a pretty girl in high school. As he recalls his gradual recovery through concentrating on magic, he picks up the pieces. Suddenly he opens both hands and shakes out a restored heart. Ta-da!
As he moves through his struggle to find order, Clark regularly talks about his amazing parents and their unfailing support in the face of a child who “threw the biggest temper tantrums you ever saw.” His voice rises to shouts of joy when he produces from a magic box a bright blue Thomas the Train model, his favorite childhood toy. “This is the most popular toy for autistic kids,” he confides. “Maybe because it’s bright and has a simple face that’s easy to understand,” he continues, adding that autistic kids have a hard time reading expressions on human faces.
He hated kid sports that made him feel clumsy and hopeless, but loved country music and Velveeta cheese recipes that he concocted with his beloved “Memaw” who played her old Elvis records and taught her grandson to shake his hips while he stirred the melting cheese and pasta.
Clark reenacts his big breakthrough, which came when he was 11 years old and a kindly magician in Florida called him up on the stage and showed him how to help do a trick. “He didn’t make fun of me, but told me to find one thing I’m really good at and go for it. He empowered me,” he exclaims, his voice rising to a happy crescendo.
The show builds power and empathy, trick upon trick, story upon story. We appreciate Clark’s humor and the sheer bravery of sharing his hard-won, unique approach to the world with a room of strangers.
By the time the magician has pulled the final carton of Velveeta out of the empty paper bag, we’ve learned much about the fears and stigmas of autism, but also a great deal about the triumphs of folks like Cody, who has “a different way of thinking.”
» Cody Clark: A Different Way of Thinking is also performed at 8:30 p.m. Friday, June 8; and 1:30 p.m. Saturday, June 9