The play is set in the village of Ilunjinle, Nigeria. Sidi, a beautiful young woman also known as “The Jewel," carries her pail of water past the school where Lakunle, the schoolteacher and a village outsider with modern ideas, works. He approaches her and chastises her for carrying her water on her head and stunting her shoulders; she is unfazed. Lakunle loves Sidi and wants to marry her, but he refuses to pay her bride-price because he considers it an archaic tradition. Sidi does not love Lakunle; she finds him and his ideas about making her a modern, Western bride obnoxious. However, she plans to marry him if he can pay the price as the village traditions necessitate.
While Sidi and Lakunle are talking, several young women run up to Sidi and tell her that the stranger—a photographer who visited the village some time ago—is back, and that he brought with him the magazine that contained within it pictures of the village and villagers. Sidi occupies a central space and is stunningly beautiful. Lakunle is dismayed to hear this, but Sidi glows with pride.
Sidi suggests the villagers act out and dance to the story of the stranger. She pushes Lakunle to participate and act as the stranger, and the performance commences. The drummers and singers and actors play out the arrival of the stranger and his camera. Lakunle gets into the spirit of the performance. As it goes on, the Bale (i.e. head) of the village, Baroka—a.k.a. “the Lion"—arrives. He plays the role of the chief. Later that day he stares at the pictures of Sidi and muses that he has not taken a wife for some time.
Sadiku, Baroka’s senior wife and head of the harem, finds Sidi and tells her that Baroka wants to take her for a wife. She paints this as an incredible honor, but Sidi laughs that Baroka is old. She glories in her photographs and says Baroka only wants her because she is so famous and has brought so much honor to the village. Lakunle, who is jealously listening, excoriates Baroka as being against progress and modernity.
Sadiku returns to Baroka and gives him Sidi’s reply. He is calm at first but becomes distressed when she tells him Sidi said he is old. He bemoans the fact that he is no longer virile, and tries to take comfort in the elderly Sadiku’s gentle touch.
Sidi is standing and admiring her photos near the schoolhouse when Sadiku, cackling to herself and carrying a bundle, arrives. Inside the bundle is a carved figure of the Bale. Sadiku looks at it and bursts into laughter, exulting in how she and the women have undone him. Sidi is confused, and Sadiku whispers to her about the Bale’s impotence.
Lakunle sees them talking and tries to learn what they are saying, but both women tell him to leave them alone. Sidi announces she has a plan, and tells Sadiku that it would be wonderful if she could go to dinner with the Bale and see him thwarted. Sadiku gleefully agrees, and Sidi bounds off. After she leaves, Sadiku and Lakunle argue, with Lakunle telling Sadiku that his plans of modernity are what is best for the village.
The scene shifts to the Bale’s bedroom, where he is engaged in wrestling with a man hired for the purpose of making him stronger. Sidi enters confidently, but the Bale’s dismissive attitude confuses her. She pretends to ask his counsel on a man who wanted to marry her, describing the Bale instead.
As the Bale continues to wrestle, he criticizes Sidi for listening to Sadiku and being one of the vexing young women of the village. He asks her if Sadiku invented any stories, and she says no. He pretends to complain about Sadiku’s constant matchmaking. He does admire Sidi, though, for seeming much deeper and more mature than how he once saw her.
Baroka confides in her his plan for a stamp machine that will have images of Ilunjinle on it, as well as of Sidi herself. He ruminates more to himself that he does not hate progress but only bland similarity. He admits he and the schoolteacher are not so different, and that they must work together.
The drums begin, and female dancers pursue a male. Sadiku and Lakunle wait for Sidi to return. Lakunle is very nervous, and claims he will go rescue Sidi.
The mummers play in the distance, and Sadiku joyfully assumes the Bale has been brought down. She also tells Lakunle he must pay the mummers for a performance or it would be rude. She grabs money from his pocket and pays them; they dance out the story of Baroka and his downfall. Sadiku herself is invited to help “kill” the Bale.
Suddenly Sidi runs in, sobbing. She throws herself to the ground. Lakunle is horrified and asks if she was beaten. Sidi sobs that Sadiku was fooled: the Lion tricked her and was not impotent at all, so he raped Sidi and took her virginity.
Lakunle announces he will still marry Sidi. She is perplexed and asks if this is true. He assents. However, almost immediately when marriage preparations start, Lakunle becomes visibly distressed. He claims to need more time.
Sidi laughs and says she is actually getting ready to marry Baroka, because it is the only thing she can do. Sadiku blesses her and asks the gods for fertility.
The festivities begin, and even Lakunle seems to be getting into the spirit of things when he chases a young woman who shakes her butt at him.