The play opens onto the emperor's throne room. The walls and floor are white, and a wooden throne with red and orange pillows sits in the middle of the empty room. Through the arched doors, hills covered in palm trees stretch for miles. An old black woman sneaks into the throne room, looking as though she's afraid of being discovered. Assured she's alone, she tiptoes through the room—only to be intercepted by Smithers, a cruel white sailor. He grabs her by the shoulders and she frantically begs Smithers to not tell the emperor about her.
This opening scene allows the viewer or reader to understand outright that Jones (the emperor) is exceptionally powerful. This old woman is clearly afraid of him, and the fact that the throne room is painted white is meant to signal that he's powerful in the same way that white people are powerful. With this, it shows the extent of Jones's control—he doesn't even need to be here to exert his strength.
Smithers asks scornfully if the woman has been stealing, and she insists she hasn't. Smithers doesn't believe this, but admits that there's something strange going on, given that the palace is silent and all the black servants are gone. Threateningly, Smithers raises his whip and the woman cowers. She explains that the natives have all run away into the hills and she's the only one left. Smithers is astonished, but meanly admits that he's glad. He continues that the emperor deserves an uprising for putting on airs, given that he's black, and says he hopes that he's around to see the natives shoot the emperor.
Notice how Smithers speaks down to both this black native woman and about Jones—his racism shines through, even if Jones is technically more powerful than he is. This shows that even if Jones has established this empire here, he hasn't been able to fully escape being the object of white people's racism. This is also an early hint that Jones will be unable to escape this race-based oppression on any level.
Smithers suddenly asks if the emperor is still asleep, and the woman assures him that he is. Smithers releases the woman, who races away in fear, and he whistles loudly out one of the doors. Smithers reaches for his gun and calls out threats to the old woman, but finally lets her go with only a racist insult.
Smithers' concern about the emperor being asleep or not suggests that Jones isn't someone to mess with. This shows that there's actual danger involved in disobeying him, and continues to illustrate Jones's degree of power over his subjects.
Jones, the emperor, enters the throne room, dressed in a blue and red military uniform covered in gold chains and brass buttons. When he sees that none of his servants are around, he shouts in irritation and threatens to beat whoever woke him up. Smithers, seeming half afraid, reveals himself to Jones and admits that he whistled, but explains that he has news. Jones contemptuously sits on his throne and asks Smithers to tell him the news.
Like the white room, the uniform is intended to show that Jones is a true emperor, both in terms of where he conducts his business and in what he looks like. However, the fact that both the white throne room and the uniform are things that aren't inherent to Jones, or an intrinsic part of him, suggests that this is just a role he's filling or has created for himself.
Smithers asks Jones if he noticed anything funny earlier, and Jones declares that nothing is amiss. Sarcastically, Smithers inquires as to the whereabouts of Jones's court, but Jones replies that they're where they always are when he sleeps: in town, drinking rum. Jones mirrors Smithers’ sarcasm and asks how he's not aware of this, since Smithers drinks with the court every day. In an attempt to mask his offense, Smithers insists that drinking with people is part of his job.
Just as Jones is performing a role as emperor, his court members appear to perform their roles as courtiers in much the same way: as soon as the performance is no longer required, they don't do it. This begins to suggest that in the logic system of this play, power is something that Jones and his court can inhabit and then put down at will.
Jones scoffs at the mention of Smithers’ job, and Smithers, enraged, reminds Jones that he helped him when Jones first came to the island—and back then, Jones didn't act high and mighty. Menacingly, Jones reaches for his revolver and tells Smithers to speak politely, since Jones is the boss now. Smithers holds Jones's gaze, but finally backs down and insists he meant no harm. Jones accepts the apology and says that there's no use in bringing up the past, as he's an entirely different person now. Further, he says that Smithers didn't help him out of kindness: Jones did dirty work and "brain work," and he was therefore once a valuable employee to Smithers.
Here, Smithers actively and openly idealizes a time when Jones, a black man, wasn't in power. Jones is very correct in pointing out that he's no longer the same person he was then, as he's now significantly more powerful than he was when he was Smithers’ employee. However, as Jones speaks, he begins to show that he thinks very highly of himself and of his skills. Though this isn't necessarily a bad thing, when taken alongside Jones's current status, it means that he thinks of himself as very superior.
Smithers reminds Jones that nobody else would hire him when they found out that Jones had broken out of jail in the United States. Jones replies that Smithers couldn't have been able to look down on him for being in jail, given that he's been in jail before too. Enraged, Smithers asks who told Jones this lie, but Jones insists that there are things he can see in a person's eyes. He pauses for a moment before admitting that Smithers did give him his start, but it didn't take long at all to subdue the natives. With pride, Jones says he went from a stowaway to emperor in two years' time.
As a black man in the US, Jones would've been subjected to Jim Crow laws and other forms of systemic racism that kept him from becoming successful there. Notice, however, that even though Jones is technically superior to Smithers on this island, he is ruler over the black natives first and foremost. Essentially, Jones is replicating the power structure he saw in the US, even to the point where he has to oppress other black people.
Smithers asks Jones if he has money hidden somewhere safe, and Jones shares that his money is hidden in a foreign bank where he's the only person who can get it. He asks Smithers if Smithers thought he's been playing at being emperor for the glory. Jones continues, saying that the glorified part of being emperor is just to keep the natives' attention; they want a "circus show," and he gives it to them in exchange for their money. Becoming suddenly serious, Jones reminds Smithers that he paid Smithers back long ago and continues to protect Smithers’ corrupt trading even as he makes laws against it.
Even if Jones is self-centered and thinks highly of himself, he also shows that he's adept at figuring out how to manipulate others by giving them what they want: he gives the natives their "circus show" and protects Smithers’ illegal activities in order to maintain their loyalty. In doing this, Jones shows that he understands that his power isn't entirely absolute. He's still giving these people something that they want, even if it's basic and conditional.
Smithers cautiously points out that Jones has been doing the same sort of thing with taxes, and the natives are out of money. Jones laughs again and says the natives aren't totally broke, since he's still emperor. Smithers smiles secretively and then changes the subject, insisting that Jones breaks the laws as fast as he makes them. Jones explains that the emperor doesn't have to follow the laws. He takes a serious tone and tells Smithers that there's “little stealing,” like Smithers does, and then there's “big stealing,” like he does. The little stealing lands people in jail, while big stealing gets a person crowned emperor. He shares that he learned this listening to white passengers on the trains, and now that he's had the chance to steal big, he's become emperor in only two years.
Jones's breakdown of little versus big stealing is a damning interpretation of the racialized systems of oppression in the US: people of color are overwhelmingly punished more harshly for minor crimes, while their white counterparts get away with or are even rewarded for crimes on a much grander scale (and even within white society alone, “white collar” criminals are punished much less harshly than “blue collar” criminals). This shows that Jones associates this kind of success with whiteness specifically, and makes it abundantly clear then that his emperorship offers him the opportunity to perform whiteness.
Admiringly, Smithers agrees that Jones successfully tricked the natives. He's never seen anyone with such luck. Jones is offended that Smithers thinks this was all luck, but Smithers insists that the trick with the silver bullet is absolutely luck. Jones laughs and agrees, but explains that he made that luck by cheating: when the native that Lem hired misfired from only ten feet away, Jones just shot him. He asks Smithers to repeat what Jones said at the time, and Smithers complies. He recounts that Jones said that he was charmed, and only silver bullets can kill him.
In regard to the silver bullet, Jones cheated his way into becoming something more than just an ordinary man with power: he's now a full-on god in the eyes of the natives. This explains where some of the natives' fear comes from, as they believe that Jones is more powerful than he actually is. Smithers’ admiration tells the reader that this is indeed something that Jones should be proud of, and it's something worth admiring.
Jones says that he's smart and he thinks quickly, which isn't luck. Smithers points out that the natives will never be able to obtain silver bullets, and it was only luck that the native's gun malfunctioned. Laughing, Jones says that the natives are all fools—they all kneeled down and bowed like Jones was a biblical miracle, and from then on, they've done whatever he has told them to do.
Smithers seems to miss that his point is the point—Jones believes that this ruse guarantees his safety, given that it's unthinkable that the natives will ever be able to come up with the one thing that can supposedly kill Jones. Again, though this was indeed smart thinking on Jones's part, it also illustrates how cocky he is, and how he depends on the natives’ impoverished state to maintain his power.
Smithers sniffs, and Jones suggests that "talkin' big" is what makes a man powerful, assuming he can make people believe that the talk is real. He continues that he knows he can fool the natives, and that's enough to maintain the charade. Jones points out that he learned some of the native language and taught the natives some English, which was hard work. He reminds Smithers that in ten years, Smithers hasn't learned a word of the language, even though it would absolutely help him profit.
The things Jones has done to truly get to know the natives show that he absolutely has the potential to be a good leader, and not the tyrannical emperor he appears to be now. This provides evidence of the strength of the power structure Jones experienced in the US. Essentially, though he has some of the tools to break it, the system itself is easier to emulate than to escape.
Smithers blushes and changes the subject. He asks Jones if the rumors are true that he actually had a silver bullet made, and Jones explains that he did. Jones says that he told the natives that when the time comes, he'll kill himself with it, as that reinforces the idea that he's the only man in the world who can bring on his own death—it's no use for them to even try. Jones laughs and says that this means he can take walks without fearing for his life.
It's a relatively common mythological motif for silver bullets to be the only thing that can kill monsters or demons, so by telling the natives that he can only be killed in this way, Jones elevates himself far above simply being human. This both legitimizes his rule of the natives and reinforces the power structure he has created here.
Astonished, Smithers asks again if Jones actually had a silver bullet made. Jones pulls out his revolver, unloads it, and pulls out five lead bullets and one silver one. Jones looks at it admiringly and yells at Smithers to get back when Smithers reaches out his hand for the bullet. Jones explains that he's not afraid of Smithers stealing, but the silver bullet is his lucky charm.
The fact that Jones needs the lucky charm suggests that he's not as different from the natives as he'd like to think, given that he too buys into some minor forms of superstition. This works to create connections between Jones and the natives, and show the reader or viewer how similar they (and all humans) are.
Smithers venomously makes fun of Jones having a good luck charm, but says that he'll need all the help he can get before too long. Jones replies that he has six months before the natives become sick of him, and at that point he'll be ready to escape. He continues, saying that he knows his time as emperor will be short, and he has no intention of remaining on the island. Instead, when he smells trouble, he'll resign as emperor, take his money, and leave. Jones refuses to tell Smithers where he'll go, and Smithers says knowingly that Jones certainly won't go back to the states. Jones insists that the story about his escape from jail isn't true.
When Jones attempts to control his own story and the elements that Smithers knows or talks about, it's an attempt by Jones to rewrite history (as dictators are wont to do). On the island he does have the opportunity to escape all of the baggage that comes with being a black man in the United States: the history of slavery, the continued racial tensions, and Jones's personal violent history and experiences with the US justice system. This shows Jones attempting to separate himself from all of these things that are parts of his past.
Smithers expresses disbelief, and Jones sharply asks Smithers if he thinks that Jones is a liar. Quickly, Smithers brings up Jones's lies that he killed white men in the states. Jones angrily asks why those are lies, and Smithers insists that Jones would've been in jail if he'd killed white men. He goes on to say that he's heard that it's dangerous for black men to kill white men in the US, as the white men then burn the black men in oil. Coolly, Jones says that lynching doesn't scare him. He levels a stare at Smithers and says that maybe he did kill a white man in the States, and he might kill another one before too long.
Smithers’ disbelief encourages the reader or viewer to also question Jones's story, given Smithers’ position of authority as a narrator of sorts. Because Smithers is an Englishman, he's also given some distance from the racism and social structure of the US: he's only heard that it's dangerous for black people to target white people; he doesn't have the firsthand experience that an American would. This shows that this particular power structure is somewhat unique to the US.
Trying desperately to laugh off this threat, Smithers insists that he was only joking, and reminds Jones that he said himself he's never been to jail. Jones suggests that maybe he (Jones) did go to jail for fighting with razors over a crap game (dice), and got 20 years when the black man he fought with died. Then, he suggests that he might've gotten in an argument with a prison guard while working on a road, and when the guard whipped him, Jones hit him with a shovel. Finally, he suggests he escaped the chain gang—though, maybe he did none of those things. Jones says that he tells this story so that Smithers understands that if he goes blabbing it all over, Jones will kill him.
With this, Jones attempts to reassert his dominance and his power over his own story by making sure that Smithers doesn't spread it. Again, however, the way that Jones couches his narrative doesn't give the reader solid evidence either way that Jones did or didn't do these things, which creates the sense that Jones's personal history is still unknown and murky. Regardless, the threat against Smithers ensures that Jones will maintain his sense of power over this particular white man.
Terrified, Smithers reminds Jones that he's always been a friend, and Jones relaxes and tells Smithers he should plan on staying that way. Smithers says that to prove he's Jones's friend, he'll tell him the news he mentioned earlier. Jones says it must be bad news, given the look on Smithers’ face. Smithers ignores this and suggests that it might be time for Jones to resign and use his silver bullet.
Smithers' apparent glee that Jones's empire is on the way out is indicative of his racism: the fact that Jones, a black man, is in power is extremely offensive to him and goes against his belief regarding how the world should work.
Jones is confused, and asks Smithers to elaborate. Smithers asks Jones if he's noticed that none of his guards or servants are around, and Jones nonchalantly says that they're all asleep, per usual—all he has to do is ring the bell and they'll run to him and insist they were awake and working. In a mocking tone, Smithers tells Jones to ring the bell. Jones looks alert and suspicious, but he maintains his tone of voice as he agrees and pulls out his bell. He rings it loudly and then goes to both doors to look. Nobody comes. Smithers looks pleased with himself and says that the ship is sinking and the rats have already left.
Again, Jones shows a remarkable understanding of the terms of his power: he knows that he has to put up with his servants sleeping in order to maintain the status quo. This shows again that Jones has an impressive grasp on what it means to be human and violently oppressed and afraid, even if he is (supposedly) superhuman and relatively free himself at the moment.
Enraged, Jones throws the bell and yells obscenities about the natives. He notices Smithers again and composes himself, laughs, and says he probably became overconfident. Jones says it's time to resign right now. Smithers compliments Jones's change of plan, and Jones says there's no point fighting it. He confirms that the natives ran to the hills and says that he needs to get going. As he heads for the door, Smithers says that all the horses are gone. Jones looks momentarily alarmed, but decides he'll just go on foot. He checks the time and discovers he has three hours before sunset.
When Jones admits that he became overconfident in his own abilities, it continues to suggest that he is aware on some level that he's conceptualized himself as being more powerful than he actually is. This opens the play up to begin to bring Jones back down to being truly human and powerless, particularly if he's going to leave his palace. By leaving this white place, Jones will leave behind some of the symbolic (and oppressive) power he created.
Smithers cautions Jones and says that Lem, the native chief, is certainly behind the revolt. He says that Lem hates Jones so much, he'd rather chase Jones than take a break to eat dinner. Jones insults Lem and says he's not scared, and that Lem will die if he gets in Jones's way. Smithers reminds Jones that he'll need to go through the forest, and the natives can track people in the dark without a problem. Smithers says that a person would need to hurry to make it through the forest in twelve hours, even if he knew all the trails.
Notice Jones's insistence that he's not afraid. This lack of fear is one of the things that elevates him above being simply human and makes him a godlike figure, which sets up fear as one thing that Jones will need to learn in the forest as he returns to a human state. As Smithers attempts to scare Jones, he's also attempting to regain some of his own power, which he feels entitled to as a white man.
Indignantly, Jones insists he's not a fool: he's been going out in the forest to "hunt" for a while now, planning his escape. Contemptuously, he says that the ignorant natives aren't smart enough to know their own names, let alone catch Brutus Jones. He says that the white men chased him with bloodhounds in the states, and he just laughed—and it will be so easy to trick the black natives, it's almost shameful. Jones lays out his plan: he'll enter the forest by nightfall, and by morning he'll be on the coast, where a French boat is waiting to pick him up and take him to Martinique. There, he'll be safe and rich.
Jones hasn't just turned himself into a god: he's gone so far as to consider the natives barely human. This shows one of the major consequences of having the kind of power he does, as it allows him to think of his subjects as not human, and therefore not worthy of being treated like humans. This line of thinking is also racist, as Jones holds these beliefs about the natives because they are black and "uncivilized."
Smithers asks what'll happen if the natives do catch Jones, and Jones insists they won't. When pressed on the matter, Jones says he has five lead bullets to shoot the natives, and then he'll shoot himself with his silver bullet. Smithers jeers that Jones will die in style, and Jones says that he'll play this game as long as he can, and when he's done, he'll go out with a bang. Collecting himself, Jones reminds himself that these "trash" natives won't be able to kill him, and his silver bullet is just good luck anyway. He boasts that he can outrun, outfight, and outguess anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Though Jones doesn't mention fear specifically, his plan for the end of his life suggests that his greatest fear isn't being dead—it's being human and powerless, like he was in the states and like the natives on the island are. This makes it abundantly clear that there are major psychological consequences to experiencing the kind of oppressive power structure that Jones did in the US, as death is preferable to existing within it.
From the hills, Jones and Smithers hear a faint beating of a tom-tom. It beats at the rate of a human pulse. Jones looks suddenly worried and asks what the drum is for. Smithers looks maliciously at Jones and says that the drum is for Jones—the "ceremony" has begun. When Jones asks, Smithers explains that the natives are holding a meeting, dancing a war dance, and generally working up their courage before they start after Jones. Jones spits that the natives will need that courage.
It's significant that the tom-tom is beating at the rate of a resting human pulse. Because of this, it shows that the natives aren't just chasing Jones to topple him, they're chasing him to reconnect him with his humanity. The tom-tom then represents Jones's humanity and rising fear as it pursues him throughout the rest of the play.
Smithers says that the natives are also holding their "heathen" religious service, and are casting charms to help them. Jones asserts that it'll take more than charms to scare him, but sensing that Jones is actually shaken, Smithers says quietly that later, when the forest is pitch black, the natives will send ghosts after Jones. He says that the forest is a strange place, even in daylight, and you never know what might happen in there. Smithers admits that even he gets the shivers there.
Despite Smithers' contempt for the natives, he's actually helping them make Jones human again by beginning to sow the seeds of fear in Jones. Similarly, Smithers essentially tells the reader/viewer that he too is human by admitting that the forest scares him. Incidentally, this also sets Smithers up as a character who doesn't need to change over the course of the play, since he's already human (and a particular kind of racist white “outsider” figure in particular).
Jones sniffs and declares that he's not scared of things like Smithers is. He says that the forest is his friend, and the natives are more than welcome to send ghosts, since he doesn't believe in them anyway. He says that he's a member in good standing of the Baptist Church, and the natives can do their best—but they'll all end up in hell, while the Church will protect Jones. He reminds Smithers again that he also has his lucky silver bullet.
Though exploitation like Jones carried out is absolutely part of the history of Christianity, it's also not Christ-like at all. This shows that Jones very much wants to have his cake and eat it too, as he wants the protection of a religious system that he's done nothing to support for the last two years, and has even actively denied. This then echoes the way slaveowners in the US used Christianity to justify their brutal and extremely unchristian practices.
Smithers laughs and says that it doesn't seem like Jones has given much thought to the Baptist Church since he became emperor, and he's heard that Jones follows the local witch doctors now. Jones insists he only pretends to, and that it's part of his game. He says that as soon as he discovers one of the natives' beliefs, he "embraces" it wholeheartedly. Jones says it doesn't do him any good to do missionary work, since he's just after money. He says that he's putting Jesus on the shelf for a while. Abruptly, Jones checks his watch and exclaims that he doesn't have time to waste. Jones reaches under his throne and pulls out a fancy hat. He bids Smithers goodbye and says he might see him in jail sometime.
Again, by conceptualizing religion as something he can pick up and put down at will because of who he is (emperor), Jones insists that he's above or beyond actually following the teachings of a particular system. This is a result of the fact that he thinks of himself as a kind of god, and because of his own godliness he doesn't need other gods or belief systems to maintain his good life. In the worldview of a godlike emperor, what he does is automatically good—he doesn’t have to strive to obey a moral system beyond his own actions and desires.
Smithers wishes Jones luck, and Jones insists he'll have such a head start that the natives will never catch up. Smithers asks Jones to give his regards to the ghosts, but Jones just grins. He says that if he meets a ghost with money, he'll tell it to not haunt Smithers so that Smithers doesn't steal the ghost's money. Smithers is flattered, and asks Jones if he's taking any luggage. Jones explains that he travels light and he has food hidden on the edge of the forest. Grandly, Jones gestures around and wills the entirety of the palace to Smithers.
Smithers’ and Jones's parting suggests that even if the two don't particularly like each other, there is some sense of companionship between them. This begins to allude to the possibility that Jones may actually want more meaningful relationships than he has with the natives (in which the relationships are based purely in power and fear), and may want to reconnect with his humanity and have friends, or at least peers who can understand his experiences.
Jones walks to the main entryway and looks around, and Smithers asks if Jones is really going to go out the front. Jones insists he's not going to sneak out like a common black person; he's still the emperor and will leave like an emperor. Jones listens to the drum for a moment, comments that it must be a big drum, and says goodbye to Smithers again. As Jones whistles and walks off, Smithers remarks that Jones has nerve. Suddenly, Smithers reminds himself of his anger, insults Jones, and hopes that the natives get him. Smithers looks around and decides to look through the treasure.
Jones very clearly lays out a hierarchy of black people, and situates himself at the top. This shows that Jones himself has internalized many racist ideas, especially those he experienced as a Pullman porter. It is worth noting, though, that as Jones leaves the white palace he abandons it as a symbol of his power. His power is therefore actively diminishing, and as it decreases, Jones becomes less white and more black, per the logic of power in the play.