Empathy: The Power of Healing

Michael Anyanwu

Mike Anyanwu is a Director in the National Troupe/National Theatre of Nigeria. He holds a B.A. (Hons.) Second Class Upper Division Degree in Theatre Arts (University of Calabar), Master of Fine Art (MFA) Theatre Arts (University of Calabar); M.Sc. Mass Communication (University of Lagos); LL.B (Hons.) University of Lagos, BL (Nigeria Law School) and enrolled as a Barrister & Solicitor in the Supreme Court of Nigeria. His works in the National Theatre/Troupe include Song of the Gods (1992), New Frontiers (1993), Erinma (1994), The Contest (2001/2010), The River Between (2013), Eriri (2014), lfenkili (2015), Shakara (2015), Akrifa (2015) and Murna (2016). He has been on performance tours/conferences to Japan, China, Egypt,  London, Dubai, South Africa and Serbia. He is a member of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Write Local Play Global (WLPG), Arterial Network, International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network (ITYARN).

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.11

Empathy has long been seen as a crucial aspect of the theatrical experience. Edwin Wilson (1991) states that empathy “is the experience of mentally entering into the feelings or spirit of another person—in this case, a character on stage.” The spectator’s identification with a character on stage can yield self-examination and emotional outpouring. This therapeutic outcome of empathy in the dramatic experience has led to the development of psychodrama, socio-drama, drama-therapy, and playback theatre. The essential thread in all these dramatic developments is the significance of empathy created within the theater by scenes in hospitals, prisons, schools, playgrounds, and enclosures.

Murna, which means joy in the Hausa language, is a play about women and children in Nigeria displaced by Boko Haram’s violence. The character’s stories are reenacted through folk-media—which includes storytelling, Hausa folksongs, drumming, and dancing—flashbacks and role-playing. The performers shred their trauma by using participatory and communal interaction with spectators. Audiences are able to empathize with the actors by relating the action to their own fears and suppressed traumas. This process of self-examination, which includes a purging of emotion, leads to relief and healing. Likewise, the actors experience a similar sensation through the joy and comfort they bring to others.

Empathy has gone beyond the theatrical exchange between spectators and performers. The world replete with conflict, violence and terrorism, is our new theater. The mixed electronic and social media have all conscripted us to act as spectators. But furthermore, technological mediation redefines how we experience empathy today. We are in a world where mediated images are beamed, often in real-time, to our phones, computers, and televisions. These images show conflict in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, Egypt, and even the recent terror attack in Manchester. When we feel for the victims and imagine their pain our fears become real. Consequently, we are also trapped in vicarious emotions and traumas.

We empathize as a collective humanity whenever and wherever violence is unleashed. But the final outcome of our collective empathy is largely determined by the actions we adopt. If our response is characterized by silence or fear, we become vicariously traumatized and fragmented as victims of our indifference. However, when these images stare at us and we respond with outcries of condemnation by speaking up, we invite a healing process for our trauma. This way, empathy offers every individual a cognitive and emotional power to dare and heal the world.


Wilson, Edwin. (1991) The Theater Experience, 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.