Chicago DJ, award-winning documentarian and media specialist Levilyn Marie Chriss died April 1 due to complications from pneumonia. She was 60.
Chriss was born Nov. 3, 1959 in New Orleans, and was raised in New York before moving to Chicago in 1976. She received her associate's degree in media communication from Kennedy-King Community College, her BA in communications media arts and theater from Chicago State University, and an MFA in independent film and digital design from Governors State University.
At the time of her death, Chriss was a Chicago State University faculty member who taught media-production courses as well as founder/CEO of L. Chriss Productions. She previously worked at Governors State University and, while in school, worked at Chicago State University and Kennedy-King Community College.
In 2017, Chriss' documentary The Louisiana Project was released. It chronicled several Hurricane Katrina survivors and what their lives had been like in the past decade. She did the documentary in honor of her late father, Levi Simmons, who died because of Katrina. The documentary was an official selection at the 2018 Philadelphia Independent Film Awards and won the Best Documentary award. It was also the Bronze Award winner at the 2017 Spotlight Documentary Film Awards.
Among the events Chriss spun tunes for was Center on Halsted's SAGE WinterPride: A Cool Night Out party and dance in 2008. She was also a DJ at other LGBTQ events for many years throughout Chicago.
Additionally, Chriss was a member of Chicago Alliance of African American Photographers and Reel Black Filmmakers. She also belonged to The Worldwide Fellowship for over 25 years, Affinity Community Services, Performers or Writers for Woman on Woman Issues, (POW-WOW), Bois2Studs Initiative and Imani African Dance.
Chriss is survived by her children, Jae L. Pettigrew, Alvin Pettigrew Jr., Jerald Lee Chriss and Johnny Ray Chrissl and siblings Johnny Ray Chriss, Andrea Simmons, Valerie Chriss, Sebastian Greenwood and Brandy Greenwood. She was preceded in death by her father, Levie Simmons, and her mother, Geraldine Chriss.
"Levilyn was one of the most caring, reliable, generous and supportive souls I had the pleasure of knowing," said friend and former Governors State University colleague Uriah Berryhill. "I met Levilyn at a time in my life, where I truly needed someone like her to help influence and bring out the leader in me. I remember meeting Levilyn in a class we had together. This particular day I was ready to leave, and she repeatedly asked questions, and I turned around and look at her aggravated. She said, 'Am I disturbing you from being somewhere, because we still have an hour left in this class, and you might need to hear what I'm asking, thank you' I said, 'My bad Ma… you are right' from there, she was no longer Levilyn. She had become, Ma, and she truly was that.
"I was just kicked out of one university, and was starting another. Unmotivated and just going with the flow, but Levilyn helped me. She told me that the world expects young Black brothers like me to fail, go to jail or die and that we have to beat the odds. She lived her life until her last breath. She has encouraged me to do the same, and I will never be the same without her. Ma, I love you dearly, and I thank you for being a perfect role model in my life. In the words of my work mom, 'live your life because you only get one.'"
"Levilyn always had a camera in her hand," said friend and former Governors State University colleague Amanda Martinez. "She wanted to capture the world but little did she know she captured our hearts. Love you Ma."
"Levilyn was an incredibly beautiful person and she will be missed by so many," said friend and former Governors State University colleague Joshua Young. "I honestly cannot say enough about how wonderful she was. She was intelligent, adventurous, exuberant, comical, unbelievably persistent, infinitely optimistic, compassionate, reliable, amiable, sincere, wise, loyal, devoted and humble.
"Our relationship evolved throughout the seven brief years that I knew her. We went from being colleagues to a friendship. She shared so much life wisdom and slowly became a life mentor. Over time, Levilyn became like a second mother to many of us, and we began to affectionately refer to her as 'Ma.' I have seen so few people grind with such persistence like Levilyn.
"I will always remember her scoffs followed by some witty quip in retort to sarcastic comments made by others about something or other, chasing-down random visitors to our department in the name of security, unbelievably contagious smile, warm hugs, go-to-greeting of 'Hello, my babies,' beaming smile of pride when she visited my new home and continuous optimism even when she was going through truly difficult circumstances."
"Levilyn was such a beautiful soul and moved a department at Governors State University to the point that we called her Ma," said Heather Penn, a friend who was also a Governors State colleague, Heather Penn. "She came to us as a film student and quickly gravitated to the engineering staff. I had the pleasure of working closely with Levilyn, and she fit right in. She was always hungry to learn and wanted to know the history, why things worked the way they worked and never passed up a chance to get hands on experience.
"Levilyn was always the student, but yet, something so much more. She could walk into a room and you would just smile because of the spirit she brought to the table. She made you laugh and she would gently challenge you to think of different points of view. Levilyn was wise and always the teacher. She will live on in our hearts forever."
"Levilyn, or as many called her 'Levi,' was known in the community as a DJ that was smooth as silk," said longtime friend Terry Boi. "She was the DJ for POW-WOW every Tuesday night for eight years. As a member of the Bois2Studs Initiative, she helped assist the organization in motivating and supporting fellow queer women like herself that were looked at as masculine. Levi joined me at CAN TV to learn the ins and outs of the production booth. That is where she started the journey to Governors State and then to teach media at Chicago State.
"Bois2Studs will miss our friend as she was on a mission to change the world through the eyes of a camera lens. She always thrived to teach the next generation how to use media to help change the world."
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the family will be holding a memorial Saturday, April 11, 3-5 p.m. at Taylor Funeral Home, 63 E. 79th St. Per the funeral home's instructions, the "time and amount of people allowed in at a time is limited and will be monitored." For more information, contact Jae Pettigrew at 224-310-7977.
Also, Bois2 Studs will honor Chriss in a virtual celebration Saturday, April 25, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. More details about this event are pending.