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The first time Moshe Cohen, the leader of the American arm of Clowns Without Borders, performed for the refugees from Guatemala's civil war in southern Chiapas, he baffled the audience. It was 1987, and the crowd of men and boys -- their faces ash-blackened from burning and cutting sugar cane all day -- sat around him on the silty earth, watching expectantly. Cohen performed a trick with a bowler hat that often elicited laughter from his European and Canadian audiences.
He looked up. Blank stares and silence.
He moved quickly into a trick involving red foam balls -- normally a crowd-pleaser. Still nothing. The weight of about 100 eyeballs began boring a hole through Cohen, a former Pacific Stock Exchange employee who'd come all the way from San Francisco to entertain them.
Thinking quickly, Cohen decided to try a bit of juggling, his forte. He laid out five large juggling balls about the size of grapefruits in a semicircle on the sand, then picked them up and tossed them confidently into the air. The yellow balls, still slippery from the loose earth, fell through his fingers.
"I couldn't get all five balls going," he says, sipping tea at Mission District cafe and laughing at the memory. "I'd try it the first time and then the second time. Then the third time. Then the clown entered me and I started making frustrated sounds. And I heard some people chuckling!
"So I got even more angry and they thought that was funny. And when I got really angry, they were laughing even harder. I was performing in front of these cabins, and I pounded my fist against the wall, and then I played like my hand hurt -- actually, it did. This was hilarious to them. It was a cultural lesson, but I broke through."
The 1987 trip was not an official "expedition" as a member of Clowns Without Borders, a group formed by Spanish clown Tortell Paltrona in 1993, but it did give Cohen a taste for what was to come once he joined up. It also gave him an affinity for bringing laughter into unexpected situations, which the 46-year-old has adopted as something of a life's philosophy.
For the past decade, Cohen has traveled all over the world as Mr. Yoowho -- his bumbling clown persona -- to bring a little levity to grim places: refugee camps, conflict zones, and impoverished communities. He has performed at Bhutanese and Tibetan refugee camps in Nepal, and has played shows in Kosovo, Croatia, and Guatemala. He visits Chiapas almost every year. Through Clowns Without Borders, Cohen has seen wretched conditions, bombed-out cities, and suffocating despair. But he's determined to ensure that he leaves "No child without a smile" -- the international organization's motto.
Cohen sees his work as a humanitarian effort, and though clowning may seem like an unlikely approach, he believes it's important to bring humor into every sphere, to give refugees "attention on a cultural level." Of course, Cohen can't make dire conditions disappear through magic tricks and juggling, but he does bring a temporary lightness to places that have been shadowed by grief and hopelessness. When he points to photographs he's taken of children after his performances -- images of genuine joy -- the value of laughter, a temporary release from day-to-day burdens, becomes apparent.
"He's taking clowning out of the circus tent and into the circus of life, where clowns and laughter are needed," attests Wavy Gravy, a longtime friend and collaborator. "My favorite definition of a clown is that a clown is a poet who is also an orangutan, and Moshe definitely fits that."
Cohen's travels have also taught him about humor and how it translates for different cultures. Invariably, he says, it's simple slapstick -- faux chase scenes or pretending to sneeze coins from his nose -- that gets the crowd every time. That, and his bald head.
"My hairline is a huge laugh," Cohen admits. "I'm not proud, but I'll take it."
Mr. Yoowho likes to wear timeless dark suits with thin lapels, his pockets crammed with red sponge balls, wind-up toy penguins, ridiculously tiny harmonicas, a pewter bell, and confetti. He pairs his outfit -- carefully selected from various San Francisco thrift stores -- with checkered socks, black shoes, and thick, Buddy Holly-style glasses. His shiny, bald pate -- a gift from the clown gods, really -- resolves into wavy wisps of reddish-brown hair that stick out from the bottom half of his head. He usually hides this most magnificent clown feature, however, under a bowler hat -- or three. Completing his timeless fashion assemblage is a beat-up brown suitcase containing colorful plastic bags, cow-patterned boxes used for juggling, five yellow balls, three toy porcupines, a plastic squeaking hammer, and a small leather purse with a crystal goblet inside.
With an audience before him, Mr. Yoowho is simple and exuberant, with a slow blink, pursed lips, and a stomach-distended slouch that makes him look childlike. There are elements of Mr. Yoowho in Moshe Cohen, of course, but when he takes off the bowler hats and the thrift-store suits, Cohen the man reemerges as a lanky, medium-sized regular guy with bright eyes, an expressive face, and a serious, thoughtful demeanor. A handful of people who've worked with him say Cohen can be a perfectionist -- one said he can be a bit controlling -- but he's most often described as kind and compassionate, with a knack for finding humor in surprising moments.