BLERDFEST!, the city’s first black-centric nerd convention, brings together anime, cosplay, comix, sci-fi, panel discussions, costume contests, games, robots and more to the Algiers Auditorium (Federal City, 2485 Guadalcanal St.) 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 6. There’s also a costume ball from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Panel discussions will explore “Black to the Future: What is ‘Afrofuturism’ & Where Is It Taking Us?” and “We In There! Black Representation in Nerd Culture” and include authors, screenwriters, visual artists, producers, educators, gamers, activists and others. There’s also a talk with Hannah Beachler, who won an Oscar for Production Design for her work on “Black Panther.” Beachler also worked on Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and the movies “Moonlight,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed.”
The convention also includes vendors, a children’s costume contest, video gaming in the kids’ area, robotics and other technology innovations.
Saturday night features an adults-only costume ball with a costume contest, cash bar, food trucks and entertainment by Calvin Johnson, DJ Chicken, Grid Squid, Higher Heights and Blerdazons Go-Go Dancers.
A portion of proceeds from the festival will benefit New Orleans Women’s & Children’s Shelter and Women With a Vision.
Convention producer TRUE, a multifaceted artist and self-proclaimed nerd who splits his time between New Orleans and New York City, says he hopes to make BLERDFEST! an annual event that will expand to multiple days.
TRUE’s goal in organizing the festival was to give black nerds in New Orleans a place to revel in the subjects, characters and cultural issues close to them.
“I went to MOMs ball last year, and I thought it was amazing,” he said. “There were hundreds if not thousands of people there. … But I was struck that in a city that is predominantly black and brown, there was an event that could be 95 percent white.
“There was diversity there, but there were only a couple of chocolate chips in that cookie. It was not a reflection of the diversity of the city and not the type of diverse environment that I feel most comfortable in. I thought, ‘I would love to have this same experience, but with a greater degree of diversity.’”
TRUE went on Facebook and asked people if they liked the idea of an event like MOMs Ball but more diverse, what should be included, etc. Respondents were interested in both a costume ball and convention.
“In many ways, this is the culmination of my life’s work,” he said. “For the last 20 some-odd years I’ve been in this same position where I’ve said to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was X?’ and X didn’t exist, so I said, ‘I guess I have to figure out a way to create X.’ This is building on all those previous projects.”
The goal, TRUE says, is not to create a festival attended only by African-Americans — everyone is welcome — but to produce a program that focuses on black actors, artists, books, films and video games.
“The whole idea behind this is not that we’re trying to exclude anyone or be against anyone,” he says. “We are just trying to center the people and stories that typically do not get centered. A big part of it for me personally is not just highlighting the films and books and comic books and video games of black folks in general, but as much as possible black women.”
To that end, he included as panelists Beachler; Chenese Lewis, an actress, speaker, activist and model; Amanda Emily Smith, an award-winning writer, poet and activist; Denise Jena, who has written short films, a web series and is co-host of the “No Lye” podcast; Live Action Animation, host of “Geeks Are Easy” on the YouTube channel and a member of New Orleans’ cosplay group Wakanda Moon; Kristina Kay Robinson, a writer, curator and visual artist; Kytara Epps, a health practitioner, activist and feminist; and Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy, a medical anthropologist, mixed-media artist, counselor and doula.
“Any time you have a community that grows up around a specialized interest, those communities tend to be skewed demographically in a way that deviates from society as a whole,” TRUE says. “For many reasons black folks have not had as much space to explore their individuality as members of other groups … and might not have the resources.” There also is a discrepancy in how black people are represented in general, he says, pointing to “Star Wars” as an illustration.
“’Star Wars’ was the most influential science fiction film in all of history,” he says. “It was a tremendous global, worldwide phenomenon. As an adult I look back and I am disturbed by the fact that in George Lucas’ mind, he wanted to show the diversity of life in the universe, so there were tall beings and short beings and tentacled beings and antennaed beings and purple and red and green and polka-dotted beings, but every single human was a white European human. There wasn’t a single black person anywhere in the galaxy in George Lucas’ mind. There’s a long history we are trying to balance out and this is one of the first steps.”
Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door (convention and ball sold separately), or $45 in advance for convention and ball. Kids 12 and younger are free with a paid adult for the convention only. Ball attendees must be 21 years old or older. Visit www.blerdfest.org for more details.