In a parachute factory near a Southern town in the early 1940s, soldiers and workers shift bales of silk. A young woman named Cindy Lou arrives and asks for a serviceman named Joe, but he’s not yet on duty (“Opening Scene”).
After Cindy Lou leaves, Sergeant Brown leads a group of soldiers, including Joe, in the changing of the guard (“Lift ‘Em Up an’ Put ‘Em Down”). The foreman tells Joe he just missed Cindy Lou, and the men joke that Carmen has her eyes set on Joe, but he’s a one-woman man (“Honey Gal o’ Mine”).
The women enter and wish the aviators well (“Good Luck, Mr. Flyin’ Man”). Carmen saunters in and her coworker Sally berates her for her lateness. The men vie for Carmen’s attention, but she focuses on Joe and warns the men that loving her would be the end of them (“Dat’s Love”).
Cindy Lou returns and gives Joe a letter from his sick mother. Cindy and Joe express their sincere, chaste affection for one another (“You Talk Jus’ Like My Maw”). Joe begins to read the letter and Cindy, embarrassed, steps away. In the letter, Joe’s mother urges him to marry Cindy Lou.
Suddenly, a terrific din comes from the factory. Joe rushes in to discover Carmen and Sally viciously fighting (“Murder! Murder!”) Sergeant Brown and Joe separate the women. Brown warns Carmen that he’ll “dole out the full penalty of the law,” but she remains defiant (“You Ain’ a Police’m”). Brown sends Carmen to the guardhouse and orders Joe to take her there. While Joe restrains Carmen’s wrists with a bandanna, she continues to flirt with him (“Dat’s Love” Reprise). As Joe leads Carmen off, the other factory workers comment (“Carmen Jones Is Goin’ to Jail”).
On a rural road, Joe and Carmen chase off a group of taunting children. Carmen, claiming she twisted her ankle, rests awhile and urges Joe to let her go. She even suggests that they go out dancing together (“Dere’s A Cafe on de Corner”). Won over, Joe releases her and agrees to meet her that evening at Billy Pastor’s Café.
As Joe contemplates his planned evening with Carmen, Sergeant Brown and Cindy Lou arrive, and the children tell them what happened. Brown arrests Joe and decides to go to Billy Pastor’s Café in Joe’s place. Cindy Lou, heartbroken, sits on a rock and sobs.
A Billy Pastor’s Café, Frankie leads the crowd in a spirited dance (“Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum”). Everyone settles back to their tables, including Rum Daniels, the manager of boxer Husky Miller. Rum and his friend Dink Franklin ask their girls, Frankie and Myrt, to go up to Chicago with them. Sergeant Brown enters, asking for Carmen. Husky Miller makes a grand entrance and buys drinks for everyone (“Stan’ Up an’ Fight!”).
Carmen snubs Brown and flirts with Husky, who has to leave early to abide by his training schedule. Before he leaves, Husky orders Rum and Dink to bring Carmen to Chicago the next morning.
Rum, Dinky, Frankie and Myrt urge Carmen to join them in Chicago, but she resists, saying she’s got a man she’s crazy for (“Whizzin’ Away Along de Track”). The two couples leave, again imploring Carmen to accompany them in the morning. She says she’ll think about it.
Joe appears and Carmen lights up. He gives her a box of chocolates and she dances for him, telling him how she’d been dreaming of this moment. But Joe tells her he must soon return to camp. Furious, Carmen lashes out at him and begins to flirt with another man. Joe stops her and, from the breast pocket of his shirt, takes out the faded flower she had gave him three weeks ago (“Dis Flower”). Softened by Joe’s declaration of love, Carmen urges him to run away to Chicago with her (“If You Would Only Come Away”).
Sergeant Brown enters and berates Joe, verbally and physically harassing him. When Brown escalates the abuse and propositions Carmen, Joe lifts a chair and strikes Brown in the head, knocking him unconscious. Realizing he’ll spend years in jail for assaulting a superior officer, Joe decides to desert the army and join Carmen. They drag Brown’s body behind the bar just as three soldiers arrive. Carmen tells them that Joe is leaving to train at the officers’ flying school. As they others toast to their farewell, Joe and Carmen hastily prepare to leave (“Finale of Act I”).
Two weeks later, at the Meadow Lawn Country Club on the Southside of Chicago, a genteel crowd has gathered to celebrate Husky’s upcoming fight. Carmen enters and tells Rum, Myrt and Frankie that she has finally decided to meet with Husky, who was furious to see her step off the train with Joe two weeks earlier.
Joe appears, looking out of place. Carmen implores him to return to the room where he’s been hiding. He asks her to call a taxi and pick him up on her way out so they can have a night on the town. Agreeing, she returns to the party, where Frankie, Myrt and some other women are reading fortune cards (“De Cards Don’ Lie”). Carmen, wondering what the cards say about her, draws the nine of spades (“Dat Ol’ Boy”). Believing this card portends her imminent death, Carmen vows to enjoy whatever time she has left.
A photographer from Life magazine arrives, and the crowd welcomes Husky’s opponent, who has come to pose with Husky for publicity photos (“Poncho de Panther from Brazil”). After Poncho arrives, the party resumes (“Dance Roma Suite”).
Cindy Lou arrives and tells Husky she’s come looking for Joe. Left alone, she prays for Joe to return to her (“My Joe”). Just then, Joe appears, and Cindy asks him to come home with her, but he refuses. Husky returns, and Joe and Husky begin to argue. Before their argument can escalate into a knife fight, the others run in and break them up. Cindy tells Joe his mother is dying, and he decides to return home. He forcefully attempts to bring Carmen with him, but she refuses, choosing to stay with her new man, Husky (“Finale of Scene One”).
One week later, it’s the night of the big fight (“Git Yer Program for de Big Fight”). Husky arrives and the crowd goes wild (“Dat’s Our Man!”).
Outside the arena, Joe confronts Carmen. He begs her to return to him, but she rejects him, saying she doesn’t love him anymore. Manically, Joe threatens to kill Carmen if she won’t join him. “Kill me or let me go!” she replies, throwing the dime-store ring he gave her back in his face. As the crowd chants for Husky Miller, Joe draws a knife and stabs Carmen. In the ring, Husky is declared the winner. Meanwhile, Joe keens over Carmen’s body, begging for death to reunite him with his one great love (“Finale”).