The Emperor Jones is about an American Negro, a Pullman porter who escapes to an island in the West Indies. In two years, Jones makes himself "Emperor" of the place. A native tried to shoot Jones, but the gun misfired; thereupon Jones announced that he was protected by a charm and that only silver bullets could harm him. When the play begins, he has been Emperor long enough to amass a fortune by imposing heavy taxes on the islanders and carrying on all sorts of large-scale graft. Rebellion is brewing. The islanders are whipping up their courage to the fighting point by calling on the local gods and demons of the forest. From the deep of the jungle, the steady beat of a big drum sounded by them is heard, increasing its tempo towards the end of the play and showing the rebels' presence dreaded by the Emperor. It is the equivalent of the heart-beat which assumes a higher and higher pitch; while coming closer it denotes the premonition of approaching punishment and the climactic recoil of internal guilt of the black hero; he wanders and falters in the jungle, present throughout the play with its primeval terror and blackness.
The play is virtually a monologue for its leading character, Jones, in a Shakespearean range from regal power to the depths of terror and insanity, comparable to Lear or Macbeth. Scenes 2 to 7 are from the point of view of Jones, and no other character speaks. The first and last scenes are essentially a framing device with a character named Smithers, a white trader who appears to be part of illegal activities. In the first scene, Smithers is told about the rebellion by an old woman, and then has a lengthy conversation with Jones. In the last scene, Smithers converses with Lem, the leader of the rebellion. Smithers has mixed feelings about Jones, though he generally has more respect for Jones than for the rebels. During the final scene, Jones is killed by a silver bullet, which was the only way that the rebels believed Jones could be killed, and the way in which Jones planned to kill himself if he was captured.