The play opens in "the audience chamber in the palace of the Emperor—a spacious, high-ceilinged room with bare, whitewashed walls." In the distance can be seen a vista of distant hills covered in palm trees. The only item of furniture in the room is the emperor's throne, painted a bright scarlet with two orange cushions on it. The stage direction tells us that as the curtain rises, "a native negro woman sneaks in cautiously from the entrance on the right. She is very old, dressed in cheap calico, bare-footed, a red bandana handkerchief covering all but a few stray wisps of white hair. A bundle bound in colored cloth is carried over her shoulder on a stick."
Then Smithers appears. He is a 40-year-old man with stooped shoulders. "The tropics have tanned his naturally pasty face with its small, sharp features to a sickly yellow, and native rum has painted his pointed nose to a startling red," O'Neill writes. Smithers wears a helmet and a riding suit, and carries a whip. He sneaks up behind the woman and grabs her. She tries to wriggle free, but he doesn't let her. She sinks to the floor and Smithers accuses her of stealing.
"You blacks are up to some devilment. This palace of 'is is like a bleedin' tomb," he says, and the woman tells him that everyone has made a run for it to the hills. She tells him she's going to leave now too, since the emperor is asleep. Smithers says that he knows that the black subjects are planning a revolt against Emperor Jones. "And I'm bloody glad of it, for one! Serve 'im right! Puttin' on airs, the stinkin' nigger!" Smithers says.
When Smithers whistles for the emperor, the woman makes a run for it. He threatens to shoot her with his revolver, but she manages to get away. Then, Jones enters, "a tall powerfully-built, full-blooded negro of middle age." O'Neill describes his eyes as "alive with a keen, cunning intelligence" and tells us that he is wearing a light blue coat with gold buttons. He is angry to have been awakened, and Smithers tells him that all of his subjects have left. Jones tells him that he knows this, before relishing the fact that he is the emperor, and became so only two years after having been a stowaway.
Smithers tries to get Jones to talk about where he keeps his fortune, but Jones says it's in a foreign bank and that he is protecting himself, that money is just as important as the glory of leadership. Smithers makes reference to the fact that taxes are high under Jones, and Jones insists that he knows how to rule. They talk about a time when someone tried to kill Jones with a gun from 10 feet away, but missed. "Blimey, wasn't that swank for yer—and plain, fat-'eaded luck?" Smithers asks, but Jones insists that it was not luck, but that he angled the incident so that his subjects would be more in awe of him. He told his subjects that he could only be killed by a silver bullet.
Jones insists, "Ain't a man's talkin' big what makes him big-long as he makes folks believe it? Sho', I talks large when I ain't got nothin' to back it up, but I ain't talkin' wild just de same." He tells Smithers that he has had a silver bullet made and told his subjects that when the time comes, he will kill himself with it. That way, they will know that there is no use in trying to kill him. At least, according to Jones' logic. He opens his revolver and shows Smithers the bullet, and scolds Smithers when he tries to touch it. Jones thinks he has six months of good standing with his subjects before he has to make a getaway.
Smithers asks Jones where he will go after resigning, and suggests that the emperor cannot go back to the United States, where he broke out of jail. Jones suggests this story is just a lie. Smithers grows angry, alluding to the fact that Jones has been telling his subjects he killed a white man in America. He reminds Jones that if a black man kills a white man in the United States, he gets burned in oil. Jones threatens to kill Smithers right then, and Smithers gets frightened, insisting he was only joking.
Speaking in the hypothetical, Jones suggests that he went to jail in the United States for killing a black man over a crap game and was sentenced to 20 years there. In jail, he got in an argument with a prison guard, split the guard's head with a shovel, and escaped.
Smithers suggests that Jones should resign that day, since all of his subjects, guards and servants alike, are gone. Jones is not worried, suggesting that as soon as he rings his bell, they will come running. He picks up a scarlet dinner bell and rings it, but no one comes. "The bloody ship is sinkin' an' the bleedin' rats 'has slung their 'ooks," Smithers says with malicious satisfaction.
Jones is overcome with anger, but quickly pretends to be unperturbed by the sudden change in loyalty, and says that he has decided to resign. As he goes to leave, Smithers tells him that the horses are gone. Jones pulls out a gold watch and notes that it's 3:30, and decides to go on foot. Smithers tells him that Lem is behind the revolution and will enact revenge. In spite of this, Jones is confident, suggesting that he managed to run from the white men looking for him in America. He tells Smithers he will hide in the forest, and tomorrow morning get on a French gunboat to Martinique. Smithers asks him what he will do if he gets caught, and Jones says that he will kill himself with the silver bullet in his revolver, so that he can be sure to go out with a bang.
Suddenly, they hear the thump of a distant tom-tom, signaling that the revolution is beginning—"the bleeding ceremony" to be more specific. Smithers tries to scare Jones, suggesting that they will send ghosts and demons after him, but Jones insists that he was in good standing at the Baptist church back when he was a Pullman porter, before he killed a man. Jones is undeterred, and leaves out the front door, to show that he is not afraid. When he leaves, Smithers looks after him with "puzzled admiration" and hopes that he gets what is coming to him.
The curtain opens on a grand hall, the emperor's throne room on a tropical island. While the room is sparsely furnished, we see the throne dedicated to the eponymous "emperor" before we see anything else. The playwright Eugene O'Neill paints a detailed description of the room itself that not only gives technical instructions for how to appoint the stage, but also have a novelistic attention to detail and tone. Not only do we the reader know what the set is to look like, but also, to a certain extent, how it is meant to make the audience feel.
Providing a foil for the elegant setting is Smithers, the rather deceptive and unsavory white man who is the closest thing that Jones has to a friend. O'Neill describes Smithers in an exceedingly unflattering light, writing, "His bald head, perched on a long neck with an enormous Adam's apple, looks like an egg. The tropics have tanned his naturally pasty face with its small, sharp features to a sickly yellow, and native rum has painted his pointed nose to a startling red. His little, washy-blue eyes are red-rimmed and dart about him like a ferret's. His expression is one of unscrupulous meanness, cowardly and dangerous." This description, information for both the actor and the reader, lays out exactly the substance of Smithers' character, and shows that he is an unpleasant man at the core.
Smithers and Jones have a curious relationship, reminiscent of the complicated relationship between Shakespeare's Othello and Iago. Smithers tries to remain supplicant to the emperor, and act as a loyal advisor, yet he is also irreverent towards the black ruler, and only wants to dupe the man whom he believes to be his inferior. They have a tricky and unsettling relationship, hardly stable, and they struggle for power within the shaky empire over which Jones presides.
Jones is portrayed as an exceedingly corrupt ruler, who knows it. He brags about the fact that he is a thief of the highest order and that he has constructed his power around exaggerations and lies. He tells Smithers that he raised the taxes on his subjects because he wanted more money, and insists that he spun the story of his near-death to make him seem all the more invincible. He is an arrogant and exploitative ruler, spinning fables in order to solidify his power as an emperor, and he is remorseless about his abuse of power.
The play's first scene is a continuous dialogue between an exceptionally confident and powerful black man who is on the verge of losing all his power in a self-created empire in the West Indies, and a white man who maintains a complexly supercilious attitude with him. Throughout the course of the scene, we learn more and more about Jones' past, how he has ended up in this position after escaping from incarceration in the United States, after killing two men. Smithers remains more of a mystery, an exceptionally out-of-place Englishman at the center of the empire.