Black History Month Feature: Ben Marshall

A few years ago, Ben Marshall was sitting in the audience at the opening night performance of the play “Boom Box,” a haunting story of two pregnant teenagers. One, originally from the south, owns a boom box and wants to sell it for a bus ticket home. The other plans to steal it from her and pawn it to pay for an abortion.

The play ended and the woman next to him started talking about the piece. It almost moved her to tears.

“It was moving, exciting, terrifying,” she said. “Don’t you agree?”

“Yes” Ben said. “But I wrote it.”

Professor Ben Marshall has combined two great loves: teaching and playwriting – in his career at Middlesex County College.

“My teaching informs my work as a writer, and my work as a writer informs my work as a teacher,” he says.

Ben’s love for both started in high school productions, where he would play piano and help the director teach the actors. He went to Kean University, where he was the very first graduate of the Theatre program there. He also has an MFA in poetry from Hunter College.

He has continued to write poetry, but his main interest in that genre is that it has enhanced his eloquence with language. He has never acted, and has no real desire to do so – but he loves playwriting because it is storytelling.

“I love to use language to tell stories and to hide stories,” he says. “People reveal things when they talk and also when they are silent.”

Most recently, Ben was awarded a $10,000 grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. He was one of 22 artists who received grants from more than 300 applicants. These highly competitive grants are based on independent review of work samples that focused solely on artistic quality.

Ben says teaching is like being on stage.

“I always try to engage my students in some ways, so I’m always asking questions. Sometimes they don’t like that – they’d rather be lectured to – but I find it helps them learn when they are challenged. Especially in my English composition classes, I bombard them with a lot of material and find that something is relevant for almost everyone. What I look for is the moment when everything clicks and the student ‘gets it.’ That is very satisfying.”

Even more satisfying than having a stranger almost moved to tears by one of your plays.

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