The Emperor Jones is set on an unnamed island in the West Indies that is meant to invite the audience to make connections to the U.S. exploitation of Haiti. The play begins in an empty throne room that inspires a strange mix of fear and awe. The lack of furniture, save for the scarlet throne, speaks to the ghostly, haunting presence of empire on the island—the remnants of which will soon be extinguished with the rise of Lem’s rebellion.
The isolation of the island setting makes Jones’s swift rise to Emperor and subsequent fall from power more believable for the audience and turns the setting into a microcosm of the larger world outside the play. Most of The Emperor Jones takes place in a forest, as Jones tries to escape the native uprising. The forest—and the path Jones takes through it—is practically sentient in O’Neill’s stage descriptions, further contributing to Jones’s and the audience's sense of unreality as the play progresses. Likewise, the deeper Jones delves into his hallucinatory flashbacks, the gloomier the lighting becomes, and the more menacing the trees seem. Removed from the trappings of civilization, Jones is able to slip through time, recalling his personal past as well as the overarching historical oppression of Black people.