Theater Notebook: Two local youth theater productions celebrate inclusion

Director Emerson McMurtry, top left, with the cast of Patio Playhouse Youth Theatre's "12 Angry Jurors."
Director Emerson McMurtry, top left, with the costumed cast of Patio Playhouse Youth Theatre’s “12 Angry Jurors.”
(Brenda Townsend)

Patio Playhouse’s “12 Angry Jurors” has nonbinary cast members and Maraya’s “Disney Descendants” features actors with autism


Two San Diego County theater groups are celebrating diversity and inclusivity in different ways this month with youth productions opening Friday, March 4.

Patio Playhouse Youth Theatre is presenting “12 Angry Jurors,” featuring many cast members who are gender nonconforming, and Maraya Performing Arts is presenting a Disney musical featuring two young actors on the autism spectrum.

Patio Playhouse Youth Theatre in Escondido returns with its first production since the pandemic began, “12 Angry Jurors,” a late 1990s adaptation of the Emmy-winning 1954 teleplay “12 Angry Men.” Originally written for an all-male cast, this more recent version of the jury room drama has non-gender-specific requirements for its 13-member cast. At the time Reginald Rose wrote the original teleplay in the 1950s, women weren’t allowed to serve on juries in the United States.

Emerson McMurtry, who uses the pronouns they and them, is making their directing debut with “12 Angry Jurors.” McMurtry said they had a personal fondness for the play after performing in it as an actor in 2014. They have been involved with Patio shows since appearing in “Sweeney Todd” in 2018.

For this show, McMurtry posted an audition notice encouraging actors who are nonbinary, gender nonconforming and who identify as LGBTQ to feel welcome.

“We wanted to draw in kids who haven’t been able to perform under the pronouns they prefer or the name they want to use,” McMurtry said. “Almost half of the actors who auditioned use either gender nonconforming or noncis(gender) pronouns and they’ve told me many times they feel like this is a safe space for them.”

The play takes place in a jury room, where jurors are debating the fate of a 19-year-old man on trial for fatally stabbing his father. During the course of their high-intensity deliberations, the jurors’ own character and prejudices come out.

McMurtry said rehearsals have been so positive that they hope to direct more shows where the roles are not gender specific. They also hope that audiences will experience more than just the play itself when they attend.

“My goal has always been to normalize these unfamiliar gender terms they-them. I wanted to use a show that doesn’t talk about gender but makes it normal to use pronouns people may not be completely familiar with. Some people don’t understand the different gender terms, and we hope that with this show they’ll discover that it’s easy to use these terms.”

Performances are at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, Friday through March 20 at 116 Kalma St. in Escondido. Tickets are $10 to $14. Visit

Actors Julian Pesqueira, left, Eddie Gange and AJ Gange in "Disney Descendants: The Musical."
Actors Julian Pesqueira, left, Eddie Gange and AJ Gange, co-star in “Disney Descendants: The Musical.”
(Rosemarie Rodriguez)

Maraya Performing Arts, founded in 2020 by Anjanette Maraya-Ramey, is collaborating with KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy, a charter middle school in in Southeast San Diego, on “Disney Descendants: The Musical.” It will run March 4 through 11 on the KIPP Adelante campus. The production will feature a diverse 22-member cast of actors ages 4 to 16 in this musical based on the Disney Channel series about the children of famous Disney animated film characters.

Featured in the cast are siblings AJ Gange, 12, and Eddie Gange, 13. Eddie was diagnosed with autism at age 3, and because of his disability, he was not able to share in AJ’s passion for performing in local youth theater productions. Maraya’s “Disney Descendants” is their first opportunity to appear in a theater production together. Another boy featured in the cast, Julian Pesqueira, is also on the spectrum.

The site-specific production will have audience members musing through indoor and outdoor space at the school where they will encounter actors in character performing scenes. Maraya-Ramey, who is now in remission after a three-year battle with leukemia, is directing and choreographing the production. This is her Chula Vista arts company’s first large-scale youth theater production.

Performances are at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Friday through March 13, at 426 Euclid Ave, San Diego. Tickets are $10. Visit

Pam Kragen writes about theater for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email her at