Through family legends and his own experimentation, Curtis Lewis found a character that he feels best gets his message across.
"Mr. Ernest" is the name of a panhandler several members of the Rock Island native's family had talked about for years.
When the playwright/director, now based in the St. Louis area, wanted to see how people felt about the homeless and beggars, he dressed up and called himself Mr. Ernest.
"I wanted to see how it actually feels to be in that situation," the 27-year-old explained.
"It was a shock for me, because the way people responded to him was 'Get away, get away, get away,'" he continued. "It showed me just how society could be, that we run away from things that look so out of the norm."
So when Lewis was writing the play "Beauty Inside & Out," set in an urban beauty salon, he saw Ernest as the best way to bring in common sense.
"Mr. Ernest, he's a bum, but he has a lot of beauty," said Lewis, who's playing the role next weekend at the Davenport RiverCenter.
"He tells stories about how you can dive deep into yourself to find out who you are. Most of the other characters in the play are dealing with pain, coping with pain," Lewis said. "They try to figure out how they can be as happy as Mr. Ernest."
Lewis, who brought his previous play "American Assassination" to the Quad-Cities for several performances, will stage "Beauty" as part of the "Million Dollar Hair Show," an expo and conference co-produced by his aunt, Yolanda Atwater.
The theme of what he calls an inspirational play is finding the beauty within yourself, Lewis said.
"Beauty" is the latest in Lewis' Journey Live Productions.
"There is no destination, just how you're living," he said of the name of the company.
The nine-member cast — as well as three singers performing original material — includes Lewis' wife, Septembre, one of several first-time performers.
"I'm apprehensive, but yeah I'm very excited," the St. Louis-area native said. "It's powerful. It's one of those things where even though you feel the power and the dynamic of what he's doing, when you look back you see how everything is tied together in how it affected so many lives."
She said it's been interesting to watch the play as well as being a part of it and its message.
"Your outer appearance doesn't always define or say that you're beautiful," she said.
Several of the characters, including Ernest, that were in "American Assassination" are also a part of "Beauty Inside and Out."
Lewis said he wants to explore more possibilities with several of the characters.
"What I want to do is show that stories continue," he said. "Sometimes they end in a play and you don't hear anything more about them."
Lewis said he wants to continue to write and direct meaningful theater.
"There are so many messages in this play, but it's all about your gift," he said. "I've got this fire that burns within me, and I've been ... trying to show people that it's all right to go after your gift and live it to your fullest."