Which characters are we meant to empathize with?
Wilson constructs the characterizations of each individual in the drama to reflect some aspect of African- American identity that demand empathy. While the historical context of African- American identity is never far from the drama, one can see the universality of these characters in all social settings. The individual who is lost and seeking to be found is embodied by Herald, while the individual who simply wants to capitulate into the Status Quo in order to be happy would be Mattie. Except for the presence of Joe Turner, Wilson does not construct a character that does not pull empathy from the audience.
I do think that there are some characters towards whom more of our empathy moves. One such character would be Bertha. The lives of the individuals in the boarding house find a voice of nurturing in Bertha. She serves as a maternal figure to many in the boarding house, developing her characterization as a maternal figure in the drama. This pulls greater empathy from the reader because she serves as a "haven in a heartless world" for many of the drama's characters.
Bertha also serves as a haven for us, the reader. The boarding house contains so many sad refugees from life. Displacement, emotional isolation, and alienation are seemingly the key ingredients to have a room in the boarding house. Bertha is a force of redemption because she enables both the characters and the audience to find some semblance of hope in a world where it is lacking. There is empathy for Bertha because she has discovered "the answer" to the pain of identity construction in the modern setting, the hurt in trying to find one's song. Bertha recognizes that there must be an embrace of the pain in consciousness, accepting it as a part of one's being but not being imprisoned by it. Her faith in both spiritual notions and in the human predicament is what allows her to endure and eventually triumph over adversity. Her ability to encourage others and not capitulate to the pain that life offers is where Bertha pulls empathy from the reader. As the characters come to depend on her in their struggles, the audience does, as well for her presence can be seen useful in our own need to find our "song."